Effects of Covid-19 on Higher Education Institutions: Discussion

Members and witnesses are requested to use the wipes and hand sanitisers provided to clean any shared seats and desks to supplement regular sanitisation. I remind all members to use the hand sanitiser in front of them throughout the meeting. I also remind members to ensure their mobile phones are switched off for the duration of the meeting as they interfere with the broadcasting equipment, even when in silent mode.

In this session we are meeting representatives of the Irish Universities Association. On behalf of the committee, I welcome Mr. Jim Miley, director general of the Irish Universities Association; Dr. Lisa Keating, director of research for the association; Dr. Patrick Prendergast, a proud Wexford man and provost of Trinity College Dublin; and Professor Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh, president of the National University of Ireland, Galway. I apologise to the professor for my pronunciation of his name; my Irish was not great at school. He is joining us remotely from Galway. Our witnesses are with us today to discuss the effect of Covid-19 on higher education institutions with specific regard to admissions, the reopening of universities, the delivery of courses, funding and future reforms.

Before we begin, I take the opportunity to thank the academic staff of Dublin City University, DCU, for appearing before the committee on 5 November and for their ongoing support and sharing of knowledge and expertise with regard to the issue of bullying in schools. Dr. Paul Downes of DCU will also attend on 17 December. I thank those staff members.

The format of the meeting this morning is that I will invite Dr. Prendergast to make a brief opening statement which will be followed by questions from members of the committee. Each member has four minutes to ask questions and for the witnesses to respond. As the witnesses are probably aware, the committee will publish any opening statements on the website following the meeting.

Before we begin, I 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 Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

The witnesses should note that they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their presentations to the committee. This means they have an absolute defence against any defamation action for anything they say at the meeting. They are, however, expected not to abuse this privilege and it is my duty as Chairman to ensure that the privilege is not abused. Therefore, if their statements are potentially defamatory of an identifiable person or entity, I will direct them to discontinue their remarks, and it is imperative that they comply with any such direction.

Professor Ó hÓgartaigh in Galway is giving evidence from a place outside the parliamentary precincts. As such, he may not benefit from the same level of immunity from legal proceedings as witnesses who are physically present.

He has already been advised of this and I thank him for that.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him or her or it identifiable, or otherwise engage in speech that may be regarded as damaging to the good name of the person or entity. Therefore, if a member's statement is potentially defamatory with regard to an identified person or entity, he or she will be directed to discontinue his or her remarks.

I call on Dr. Prendergast to make his opening statement. He has five minutes. I am aware we have another group coming in, so we will have a full hour from now. We should not, under Covid-19 rules, but I will stretch the meeting to make sure we have an hour with the witnesses present.

Dr. Patrick Prendergast

I thank the Chairman and members of the committee for inviting us to address them today on the impact of Covid-19 and other key matters in Irish higher education and research. I wish to start with the impact of Covid-19 and our responses to it.

Our universities responded quickly as the crisis unfolded, rapidly moving all teaching online in response to public health restrictions. We successfully completed the academic year and graduated our doctors, nurses and other essential workers. University staff and facilities were deployed in the front line against Covid-19 by providing testing, contact tracing and other key activities. Our researchers also contributed greatly in areas such as medical technologies, infection control, health and safety and mental well-being. Many of our colleagues have been directly involved in the national effort. It is reassuring also that Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, has confirmed that the quality and integrity of teaching and exams were upheld in the shift to online education.

Plans for maximising in-person teaching in the academic year were curtailed to a large extent this September just gone by on the advice of Government. On-site activities were restricted with most classroom activities done online. We did laboratory and practical sessions and small-scale tutorials on-site and we are continuing with that where it is possible.

I and all of us wish to acknowledge the huge effort of staff over the past nine months. Their focus, and ours as university leaders, has been to ensure the experience of students is as good as it can be despite all the restrictions. The students have shown remarkable resilience but we know how challenging Covid-19 is for them.

We have provided a range of extra welfare and mental health supports for students with a particular focus on targeting more vulnerable groups and recognising too the heavy toll Covid-19 is having on student well-being. Our students now tell us they want more on-campus activity and we wholeheartedly agree. We have outlined how we can safely provide more on-campus activity and we hope the public health guidance facilitates us to do this in 2021. On-campus activity also includes extracurricular and co-curricular activities to enable students to have at least some limited on-campus experience. That is what they want and that is what we want for them. Our universities have also added more than half of the 5,000 or so extra college places funded by the Government.

The Covid-19 crisis has also had a severe impact on university finances and the current estimate is that our seven universities will run a combined deficit between the last and current academic years of €102 million. Student accommodation revenues have fallen with an average occupancy rate of only 65%. Ancillary and commercial revenues have been devastated and are likely to remain so for much of 2021. Costs have increased with greater online and digital investment. This is now needed to deliver online education. We also have increased costs needed to fund the substantial public health measures, and costed extension have been required for research contracts.

Extra funding provided by Government in July and in the recent budget is warmly welcomed and we thank it for that. The Covid-19 funding, however, only extends to the end of this year so we ask for the committee's support in seeking additional funds in 2021 through a supplementary budget to cover the additional known costs and unavoidable revenue losses arising from Covid-19.

This takes me to core funding. The serious underfunding of higher education and research remains to be tackled and we welcome the commitment of the Minister, Deputy Harris, to this committee that he will act promptly on the funding issue once he receives the report from the EU study early in the new year. We note particularly the Minister's comments that the issue has been shirked for far too long. He also said that 2021 needs to be the year in which we settle this question. We look forward to the Minister delivering on that promise and to the support of this committee in ensuring it.

While student numbers have increased by approximately one third in the last decade and continue to rise, State funding per student has fallen by almost 40% and this is unsustainable.

On the question of the future role and changing needs of universities, as I outlined, universities have proven remarkably agile in their response to Covid-19. More than anything, Covid-19 has shown us that our talent and innovation capacity is the key resource for Ireland's future.

We are committed to ensuring that our universities continue to provide the pipeline of high-quality educated people and high-quality research for the Irish economy and Irish society overall. We will continue to adapt to changing skills needs through a more flexible range of courses such as the recently announced multi-campus micro-credentials programme. Sustained additional investment is also needed in research and innovation to enable Ireland to compete internationally for jobs and investment. This committee’s support in securing that strategic advantage for Ireland is sought.

The promised revision of the Higher Education Authority Act 1971 is eagerly awaited. It must be based on a strong model of accountability to all stakeholders, with a capacity for autonomous universities to remain agile and responsive to the changing needs of society.

Finally, the employment control framework, which has capped the number of permanent staff we can employ despite the rapid growth in student numbers, must be replaced with a devolved structure with universities managing their own workforce within a defined budget. We look forward to discussing these and other issues with members of the committee.

I thank Dr. Prendergast. If witnesses wish to remove their masks when speaking that is no problem. Our first questioner this morning is Deputy Conway-Walsh followed by Senator Dolan.

I thank Dr. Prendergast very much for the presentation. Four minutes is such a short time for this so I will concentrate on two issues. I wish to acknowledge the work that has been done but there are many elephants in the room with regard to how and where students are at. I acknowledge what Dr. Prendergast said in terms of the chronic underfunding of the third level sector and the Minister said that will be addressed. I believe we need a separate session to discuss that.

My fear, however, is that students are filling the gap at the moment both in terms of fees, which are the highest in Europe, and the failure of institutions, even the on-campus ones, to refund the accommodation. I want to concentrate on that and also the postgraduate situation where full fees are being charged. We have the perspective and the promises. There are two issues here. First, it is unethical for students to be charged the full amounts when they are not getting the experience they have been promised in the prospectuses for their education. There is also an issue in terms of contract and consumer law if they are to be treated as consumers in terms of what they have been offered as opposed to what they are getting.

When we did a survey earlier in the year, we found that four out of five students were under financial stress, some of it severe. I put it to Dr. Prendergast that bringing in measures for students' mental health is welcome but we need to remove the causes.

The biggest causes of stress for students and their families at the moment is financial stress. Do the witnesses agree that it is unethical, that there is an issue there with regard to contract and consumer law and, in terms of the experience that students are getting, that they are filling the gap made by the chronic underfunding of universities? Will the witnesses assure members that refunds will be given to those who are looking for them for accommodation that they were prevented from using due to the late timetables and the lack of clarity given by the Government and the institutions as to what their timetable would look like?

Dr. Patrick Prendergast

Refunds in accommodation have been arranged, at least in my institution, Trinity College Dublin, and I believe in other universities. A lot has been done there. I see that Professor Ó hÓgartaigh is saying the same. If that is not done, then I believe it should be and I agree with the Deputy on that point. We do not see our students as consumers. The relationship between a student and a university is far more deep and meaningful than just a straightforward transaction.

The cost of delivering the education has not reduced by being online. As I said in my opening statement, if anything it has increased due to providing the new technology we need to deliver effective online education. We too are sorry that the students' experience this year is not as good as it could have been had they been able to be present on campus.

The Deputy is on the money with regard to mental health and well-being. This is a real key issue for students. We find that it does not devolve entirely from the financial issues but from the lack of ability to meet fellow students and their lecturers in person. That personal contact between individuals is what the students miss most of all. Generally speaking, these students are relatively young, between the ages of 18 to the mid-20s. This is the time of life when they should be meeting other people. Some would say they are evolutionarily programmed to do it, and yet we had to stop that to help prevent the spread of the virus. This is having a well-being and mental health effect that we in the universities are trying our utmost to ameliorate.

I wish we had more time.

Deputy Cathal Crowe is replacing Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan, if that is agreeable to the committee. Is that agreed? Agreed.

I thank our guests for attending the committee this morning and for their opening statements. I have a slightly more constructive way of approaching the funding issue and, more acutely, the student contribution.

Our guests will be abundantly aware, no doubt, that there are campaigns in student unions seeking refunds on the basis of not getting the student experience, as has been referred to. While I have certain sympathies, I accept that the universities' costs are not significantly down just because lectures are online. The nature of my question will, I hope, illustrate that.

Noting the Minister's commitments on third level funding in the new year, will the witnesses provide the committee with further clarity on their overall costs versus what they receive? Have they had significant issues with international students, for example, not being on the scene? I am aware of the significant contribution there. What savings have the universities been able to make by not having the vast majority of students on campus? I would also like to hear any other comments the witnesses may have. I will have one follow-up question, so I ask our witnesses to be as succinct as possible.

Dr. Patrick Prendergast

Maybe one of my colleagues will contribute from a university-wide perspective.

Mr. Jim Miley

There have been substantial cost savings. Very early in the pandemic all universities right across the system undertook significant cost curtailment. That has been and is an ongoing feature of the management of finances. Frankly, they have no option but to do that because they are now running into deficit across the board.

One of the key challenges around this is that almost 70% of the cost base is staff, and staff are regulated under the employment control framework. There is little or nothing that-----

I am sorry to interrupt Mr. Miley, but are we to operate on the assumption that those are fixed costs and do not change?

Mr. Jim Miley

Those are fixed and there is no potential to change that. On the other aspects, international student revenue was somewhat better this autumn. We had expected that this would fall through the floor but it was not quite as bad as we had anticipated. This is a great testament to all the individual universities and, in fairness, to the support of the Department and the Minister in providing funding to welcome in the students. We had a controlled greet and transfer service from the airport. That signal was sent out to the international market, and while other countries closed their borders to international students, we did not. That remains a challenge however.

One aspect we were really hit badly on was commercial revenues. The facilities in Trinity College Dublin such as the Book of Kells were significant revenue earners that cross-subsidised educational activities. They are gone for this year and will be gone for most of next year. There is certainly a big hole in finances on that. It is hoped that they will recover in the longer term but we have a temporary yet very significant issue there.

I have two final questions. Do the witnesses recognise the basis for the students making the request of Oireachtas Members and beyond, and the students' feelings on the amount offered by the Minister, Deputy Harris? In fairness, €250 out of €3,000 is not a small amount and I am sure it is welcomed by most. The students do have legitimate issues on it. What Mr. Miley has said illustrates to me that we should have implemented the Cassells report on third level funding years ago after it was published. While the move for the Minister actually to address funding concerns at third level in the new year is very welcome, frankly it is years late. I would like the witnesses' view on that very briefly.

I ask that the witnesses would respond directly to the clerk with those answers because we are gone over time.

I acknowledge the leadership that has been shown by the leaders of our higher education institutions and by the staff in responding to Covid. I echo Deputy Farrell's concerns that we have not addressed properly the higher education funding question.

I will ask a series of rapid-fire questions within the limited time. Dr. Prendergast said that the known costs of the combined deficit for this year would be €102 million. If there is a worst-case estimate or best-case estimate, what does he believe it would be?

On the role of the universities in helping with the Covid recovery, what can be done in the area of research and the social sciences around the impact of Covid?

The witnesses will be aware that the Government will roll out a major vaccination programme next year. What role can the universities play in partnering with that?

There has been a significant shift to online and blended learning. In a very short period of time the universities have responded in that regard. Students want to return safely to on-campus activity. In line with the roll-out of the vaccination programme, what assurances will the witnesses give us that this will happen? Because universities have started to embrace online technology in a far greater way than in the past, and in the context of the international student offering, how can we effectively sell and market online? I would argue that Irish universities have been a little behind some of our international competitors in this regard. How can Irish universities take a greater share of that online market?

Dr. Patrick Prendergast

I might leave the issue of a finance worst-case scenario to Mr. Miley or to Professor Ó hÓgartaigh. I will, however, take one of the Deputy's rapid-fire questions, which is on the relationship between research and Covid. Like other Irish universities, Trinity College Dublin has a few scientists now who are household names, including Professor Luke O'Neill and Professor Kingston Mills.

The contribution of Irish universities shows the value of research. When the chips are down and we are in a difficult situation, we can rely on the quality of Irish scientists, mainly working in Irish universities, to make contributions. The social sciences will come into their own as we begin to consider how to roll out the vaccine effectively in society. In the spirit of rapid fire-----

Mr. Jim Miley

In the worst case scenario, we had originally expected that the deficit could be up to €200 million over the two year period. We are hopeful that the figure will be more like €100 million. We are in a much better position to predict that. That is assuming-----

That is still worrying.

Mr. Jim Miley

It is worrying and assumes that we will be back to some level of normality by next September. If we are not, we will begin to lose some ground. On the vaccination programme, perhaps Professor Ó hÓgartaigh will come in on that. Our universities are available to the Government. We have said to the Minister and his Department that we can make them available to support that programme.

Professor Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh

On the vaccine, we have been very keen to work very closely with local HSE public health in the testing area and will be happy to work with it in the vaccination area once vaccines become available. I echo Dr. Prendergast's comment on the scientific contribution because, for example, the contribution of medical devices in Galway has been significant.

As was mentioned, the social sciences and redefining our humanity as the crisis evolves is particularly important. On the question of online learning, student feedback would suggest what we always imagined, namely, that online is not a replacement for in-person teaching. My sense would be that it will in the future enhance in-person teaching and technology will make that better, but it will not replace it because the student experience is much more than that. We have learned much and have been very agile in the online context, but it is something that will enhance our teaching rather than replace the in-person experience.

Will there be assurances when the vaccine is rolled out?

Dr. Patrick Prendergast

We have done everything extremely safely. One of the safest places for young people at the moment is the university campus, where there is 2 m social distancing, mask wearing and a very good and safe environment. We intend to keep it that way as the vaccine is rolled out. Universities have resources, such as fridges at -90°C and everything else that is needed to help in the roll out of the vaccination programme. We would be very eager to participate in that in an appropriate way.

I thank the witnesses for their presentations. I agree with Deputies and Senators that we need to invest in our third level education, not just in students but in teachers and lecturers.

I refer to digital literacy. Some 29% of those surveyed said they do not know where to learn it. What measures can be taken to address the digital divide and inequality in learning? One shoe does not fit all. As I have said many times in this committee, many people with learning disabilities do not have access to computers.

I am also interested in the delivery of future courses. Many people, including me, choose practical degree, masters or doctorate university courses. How do we promote that learning style in the middle of a pandemic so that people can do the courses they have chosen?

In what ways has Covid affected services for vulnerable students, such as disability services and extra learning supports? What measures can we put in place to support our most vulnerable students who do not usually have a say in what is happening?

Dr. Patrick Prendergast

I welcome the opportunity to speak about these issues. We might take the last question first. In terms of services for vulnerable students, we have done much more in all of our universities to hire counsellors and medical staff who can help during the pandemic. We have found there is a much greater need for psychiatric and counselling services. The head of our health service told me the number of students turning up to the health service with mental health issues has doubled. His service has to respond to that and provide the mental health advice and care needed for students in all groups. Vulnerable groups, in particular, and students with disabilities need to get that help to complete their courses. We are very aware of this issue, as are those providing health services within universities.

Perhaps some of my colleagues would like to comment on the other points.

Professor Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh

The question on the needs of students is a good one. If I was to plead for one area, it would be that we would focus our resources on those students most in need. As we come through Covid, there is talk of a K-shaped recovery. The extent to which universities contribute significantly to equality of opportunity – and we should do more – we can ameliorate the impact of Covid-19 in the context of that recovery, not only in terms of access to opportunity, as the Senator said, but also upskilling for those who need it.

We have some thoughts around universal design for learning which is important in the context of students with particular needs. Last week, the IUA hosted a webinar which was very useful in that context. Courtney McGrath, who was on the "My Uni Life" programme, mentioned that students are experts by experience. We are learning more and more that we need to learn from students and engage with them in designing the technology and learning context for them. We are particularly keen to progress that. I would be particularly keen to focus on those students in need because that is where there is most impact and where we can have most impact in the context of the implications of Covid-19.

Many of my points have been raised. For the sake of brevity and being mindful of the time available, I want to acknowledge the role of the universities. I want to accept the point on core funding which was a problem long before Covid and will remain a problem long after. I want to acknowledge the centrality of the student experience. While I accept Senator Byrne's point on moving towards a blended learning model, we know that students need to spend time together in one place. That is a very important part of the student experience.

I will use my time to talk a little about curriculum coverage. I welcome the QQI assurance that we are keeping standards at the level they need to be at. An issue I have raised with the Ministers for Education and Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputies Foley and Harris, is the transition from second level to third level. In the coming year, there will be a greater level of choice available in exam questions. I am thinking in particular of technical subjects such as maths and physics.

If we have a greater range of choice we will, by extension, see holes in learning. Not everything in the secondary school curriculum will be covered. How will we manage the through planning from second level to third level? Lecturers will not be able to assume full curricular coverage for first year students or that the gaps in education are the same for each student sitting in front of them.

I refer to that specific interface and third level experience. In order to keep the levels to where we expect them to be in Irish universities, is there planning so that we can fully accomplish curricular coverage and make sure there are the correct connections between second and third levels?

Dr. Patrick Prendergast

I thank Deputy Ó Cathasaigh for the interesting and complex question on an important issue of how we link the secondary systems to the third level systems. Much thought has been given to this excellent work done by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment and others in trying to work out how the transition works effectively.

It is probably not possible to create precise curriculum coverage in a simple way where a student learns in secondary school what they will take forward into university. I believe it is more important to teach students how to learn in secondary school. There used to be a very good old phrase called "love of learning". One could teach that to students. That motivates them to learn by themselves and they can do much of this by themselves once they have an interest in the subject.

This business of transition is an important point that probably needs much more discussion than we can give it here. It is, however, more about modes of learning rather than specific bits of curriculum. Students should not come out of secondary schools feeling that they need to regurgitate information; they should come out with a desire to learn for themselves. That is what we want them to have when they come into university. That is what we are more concerned about rather than whether something is missing in the secondary curriculum. We know that they can pick that up at third level if they come into the universities with the right attitude to learning.

Professor Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh

I was thinking precisely the same thing. The way students learn - the process of learning - and, as was mentioned, the love of learning are much more important than the content. We do much peer work as well with students in helping them through first year, particularly in areas like maths, as Deputy Ó Cathasaigh mentioned. I believe the process of learning, however, is much more important than the actual coverage of the curriculum in that we can cover and pick up parts of the curriculum later if needs be. I agree entirely with the comments of the provost.

There is a significant shift in the style of learning between secondary and what is expected in third level. I am interested in that idea of a universal design for learning and finding out more about that as it comes on stream. It is an interesting idea.

Professor Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh

We will follow up directly on that.

I welcome Dr. Prendergast from Trinity College Dublin, the members of the IUA and, of course, Professor Ó hÓgartaigh. It is great to see him. I worked in NUIG before moving to this new role in the Oireachtas. I would also like to note that NUIG is the first mindfulness university in Ireland which, I believe, is important in this time of Covid-19 and the challenges we face. I know many other universities will be taking on board points from that as well.

I wish to pay tribute to the teaching, academic and research staff who have kept going throughout, and to everyone who volunteered, and particularly, on behalf of NUIG, the public service and epidemiology NPHET and MedTech research. I am familiar with it, and particularly with the colleges of medicine, nursing and health sciences and the people within those colleges who have given and volunteered with the HSE.

My questions relate to what we are talking about here, that is, admissions, reopening and delivery of courses. It is fantastic that QQI has indicated that universities have delivered the courses. From a student's perspective, a key goal for universities is the high-quality student experience. My question is about the student voice. Is that being heard? Have surveys been conducted? Professor Ó hÓgartaigh said he had feedback from students. How do witnesses think we might open a limited on-campus experience, potentially next year, with these levels we are dealing with living with Covid-19?

Funding is urgently required and was required before Covid-19 ever happened. The IUA stated there is a shortfall of more than €102 million. In terms of research streams, from working in a research office, I am very much looking at the income coming in from researchers and funding programmes, such as European Research Council, ERC, and Horizon 2020 at a European level, but particularly from national programmes. Will that also continue? Perhaps other members would like to come in on that.

In terms of future reforms, I am happy to hear from the Minister, Deputy Harris, that there will be a commitment to provide a report and an update early next year. I have come from working as a contract researcher in a university, and I understand there are huge issues. Thankfully, we have had a fantastic international student experience but core funding has fallen and the numbers have increased since the economic crash. A commitment is there, however.

Dr. Patrick Prendergast

We are fortunate we have with us Dr. Lisa Keating who is the director of research in the Irish Universities Association. I am sure she could begin our reply to the Senator on the research issues.

Dr. Lisa Keating

Obviously, the role played by research and innovation throughout the pandemic is quite clear from the services that have been provided to the expertise and global networks. It is really key. The challenge we face is in terms of the investment going into research. We are still one of the lowest OECD countries in terms of the amount we invest in higher education research. Only 0.34% of GDP goes into higher education research. That has been declining since 0.5%.

The EU average is 1.5%.

Dr. Lisa Keating

Yes, so we are declining quite a lot. One can have a debate over GDP and GNP but even if one looks at the proportion of Government spend overall that is directed towards higher education research, which is effectively public research, it has been decreasing over time and is below 1% of the overall amount. That is a really key area.

The other thing that is important to note is while there has been much work in terms of Covid-19, not only in science and technology but, as mentioned, on the social and behavioural sciences, which is key, much of the money has also been directed there. In the absence of new money, it will be difficult for all the other important areas of research to survive and thrive. This is the current societal challenge we face but many more are coming down the line. We need to continue to invest across the broad range of areas. That will be key, particularly when so much of the investment is going into Covid-19 research. There is a paper today in Nature about it.

The witnesses might talk about the student experience.

Does Professor Ó hÓgartaigh wish to come in on that?

Professor Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh

The student experience is a really important question. We have done surveys, as have other universities, both in the spring and autumn, on the student experience. What we are finding are challenges not so much around finances but more around the experience itself and the sense of disconnectedness and increased wishing to belong. That is something we are working on as a priority and, again, thinking about the second semester and how we might do more.

We have a strong student voice, as do other universities, on the Academic Council. Our next governing authority, which will be formed in 2021, will have more student representation. That is something we were keen to have. The student voice is important in the context of how we define our response and we are engaging with students on an ongoing basis in that context.

Dr. Patrick Prendergast

I would like to add to what Professor Ó hÓgartaigh said. The student voice is extremely important and it is loud, clear and well-heard in all Irish universities. I would not say it is the same way around the world but it is loud and well-heard here.

I want to pick up on the Senator's final point on future reforms. We now have a Department with responsibility for higher education and research so for the first time these two things are being brought into the same person's head. This will make a big difference and the future reforms in the coming year with the new Higher Education Authority Act and potential new governance for universities should make sure universities are not seen as just seen as teaching outfits but as important parts of the research and innovation infrastructure of the State. The two things can work together if we get it right.

I very much agree with Dr. Prendergast.

It has been widely acknowledged that the university sector has been proactive and flexible in challenging circumstances both in terms of delivering online learning but also, in fairness, it must be said, in response to the leaving certificate situation and finding additional places. The Minister described a "can do" attitude among the university sector. I believe that is a fair summation.

My first question is on whether there might be a political demand to repeat the trick next year. I expect that will not be easy. It must be noted, however, that because of the high points that existed this year, if high-performing students or, indeed, students broadly speaking next year are not to lose out on places they might to expect to achieve in an ordinary year, then the additional supply of places might be necessary. I know that is not cheap and not easy but is that being discussed? Are we looking towards the new intake and the number of places that will be available? Will the witnesses comment on what will be required delivered it?

I have two other questions before I let the witnesses in to respond. I have a big concern regarding student housing.

The primary focus of this meeting is on the quality of education, but most universities have arm's-length bodies that deliver on-campus or near-campus accommodation. Generally speaking, these companies are not cross-financed by universities, but most of them are in serious financial difficulties. In some instances, this has led to rent increases. There has been a response from most institutions in respect of deposits, but I am concerned about the companies' sustainability. Do they need a particular intervention?

Considerable flexibility has been shown in the provision of online learning, but I have a concern. We are in December now. Is there a greater potential for students to fall between the cracks? People drop out every year, but is there greater evidence of that happening this year?

Mr. Jim Miley

I will give two responses to the question on extra places. Apart from Covid and the particular circumstances of this year, there will be between 3,500 and 4,500 extra students per year looking to attend higher education over the next decade, given the demographic bulge. The Deputy is right that this issue will be back on the table next year. It is important that, as part of the overall funding package, we are not just trying to fix the current system's funding, but that we provide adequately. In fairness, the Government has provided for extra places in recent years. However, it also needs to provide for related structural changes. We have taken in these students but we have not been able to increase our number of permanent teaching staff. There has been a one third increase in students over the past decade but only a 4% or 5% increase in the number of permanent staff. This has forced universities to employ teaching staff on a casual basis. Universities do not want to do that. They would prefer a more structured approach. As such, there is a structural element to this matter as well as a financial one.

The Deputy referenced issues that we need to address in terms of the points differential for next year owing to this year's changes. We will continue engaging with the education and higher education Departments in that regard.

Regarding the dropout rate, we have conducted an analysis of our member universities in recent weeks. The indications are that there has been no particular change yet, but we are keeping the situation under close watch. When exams are held at the end of the year or early in the new year, there could be an issue. Something may be bubbling under the surface, but we have no evidence of any change yet.

Student housing was mentioned. I will hand over to one of my colleagues on that.

Briefly. I am conscious that we do not have much time.

Dr. Patrick Prendergast

Student housing is presenting a problem for every university and for students on foot of that. Most universities have dealt with students having to leave by giving them refunds. Since we do not have a direct relationship with private providers, that issue will have to be, and perhaps should be, dealt with elsewhere. The question of how student housing can be better organised in a way that is more cost effective for students should not be put too far down the agenda. We share people's concerns in that regard.

I thank the witnesses for participating. Everyone in this room recognises that the experience for students has been badly affected as a result of Covid. There has been an increase in mental health issues because students have been deprived of the on-campus experience, which is an essential part of their educational, social and intellectual development.

I wish to ask Professor Ó hÓgartaigh and Dr. Prendergast in respect of their institutions, NUI Galway and Trinity College Dublin, what percentage of students are being taught remotely and what are their plans to get students back on campus in January?

Dr. Patrick Prendergast

I would be happy to answer. In Trinity, all students are receiving an element of their education online. There are some courses on which they are getting 50% in-person teaching, namely, the health sciences and the like where they have to do practicals and face-to-face activities. On some courses, students are getting zero face-to-face teaching because their lecturers believe they can be taught fully remotely, for example, law.

Do the lecturers determine that? If a lecturer decides that a course can be taught remotely, will it happen remotely?

Dr. Patrick Prendergast

If it is essential that teaching be delivered face to face, it will be done face to face. The lecturers are responding to the public health guidance, which is to teach face to face if they can. We in Trinity hope that, as we move into next semester, all students who can be physically present on campus will be able to receive face-to-face education. We believe we can do that, with the agreement of staff.

Is that dependent on the lecturers agreeing to it?

Dr. Patrick Prendergast

Clearly, they must be in a position to deliver face-to-face teaching.

Could we hear from Professor Ó hÓgartaigh?

Professor Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh

The guidelines are clear, in that lab-based and practical tuition is done in person because it is essential and cannot be done online. Other than that, under the guidelines and particularly during level 5, all other teaching is done online. We hope to be able to do more in semester 2, albeit not so much in terms of the delivery of teaching, given that, for larger groups especially, much of that cannot be achieved in person because of the limitations and the public health restrictions. Rather, I mean supports for students, face-to-face teaching, peer learning, in-person meetings and so on. Our colleagues and our students wish to have more in that context. I did a tour of our college executives over recent weeks. There is an enthusiasm to do that to the extent we can. Clearly, there must be a balance between the public health advice and what can be done by individuals, particularly those in high-risk situations and so on, and by us in terms of expanding the in-person experience. Within that balance, we hope and wish to be able to do more in semester 2.

Is consideration being given to allowing the students to be on campus for their lectures but with their lecturers present remotely on screen like Professor Ó hÓgartaigh is now?

Professor Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh

The issue there is large groups of students. Adhering to public health advice would be challenging for us due to what is called risk of congregation. First, there is the issue of being in the room and what the room can accommodate under social distancing guidelines-----

Can I just conclude-----

Professor Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh

-----and, second, what happens as students leave the room. I am not sure if it is a good idea, but I am not sure how we could fix the issue, per se.

Let the Deputy conclude.

Is it not regarded as essential that students in third level institutions have face-to-face teaching in the same way as it is essential for secondary school students to have such teaching?

Dr. Patrick Prendergast

Many of us view it as essential, perhaps not for pedagogical reasons, but for the students' well-being.

Professor Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh

One of the key differences at third level is scale. Returning to the funding issue, some class sizes are in the hundreds. The challenge is accommodating large numbers.

Cuirim fáilte roimh na n-aíonna ar fad. I will ask my questions quickly. I must return to the question of fees, given that there have been campaigns among UCD graduate entry medicine students, 70% of whom are reported to have withheld their fees. UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School's students are lobbying for a 30% reduction in their fees. Students are basing these claims on the diminution of the college experience. Are there similar campaigns in other colleges, mar shampla, i nGaillimh?

There has been much talk about blended learning. It is a pill-sweetening phrase. We must be conscious of the importance of online learning in certain contexts where there is no alternative in normal times, but do the witnesses believe that the reputation of online learning has taken a hit overall?

Maidir leis na mic léinn ata ag teacht ó thar lear, international students, as we know, have a particular challenge around medical insurance in the light of the Health Insurance Authority, HIA, v. Chubb. Have the witnesses a common position on what ought to be done to deal with that problem?

Ar deireadh, maidir leis an difríocht idir fhoireann atá fostaithe go buan agus foireann eile, because of the limitations on their ability to recruit permanent staff, is there the same situation as one has at second level, namely a morale issue because of the difference in pay and conditions between different staff essentially doing the same job? Is there a morale problem in this context?

Dr. Patrick Prendergast

I might begin answering on the second of the Senator's points on online and maybe, since Senator Mullen looked at Professor Ó hÓgartaigh on the matter of the fees, I will leave that one to him.

Professor Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh

Go raibh maith agat.

Dr. Patrick Prendergast

The Senator asks if online has taken a hit. The interesting thing about online is it has not. Online has shown its value in the pandemic. It has shown that one can go overboard with it perhaps, and have too much of it, but the delivery of every course module could benefit with an element of online. It has shown its value. What we have seen is the balance that should exist between online and in-person, and how much care and attention we have to give to getting that right for every course.

On the fees, I cannot answer for UCD but I can say that we are not in the same situation.

Professor Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh

Mar an gcéanna, níl mé ag rá go bhfuil na mic léinn á spreagadh ach níl aon fheachtas ar siúl faoi láthair. We work closely with our students union and liaise with it in the context of both the student levy and student fees, which would be seen as different. The student levy is somewhat different. On fees, the sense is, certainly, from our point of view, as we have mentioned already, that the costs are the same and in some cases higher. The qualification is the same in the quality of the outcome. One could say in many ways that there is a loading in the context of ambiguity and uncertainty as well which is quite significant. We are liasing closely with our student union in that context. The sense we are getting is that if there are issues we can address in the student experience, that is a significant step towards supporting students. Both public health advice and guidelines will help us in that regard, but also the excellent work of colleagues which we mentioned already.

Going back to the morale issue, there is really a very agile response from colleagues. We must commend that. That is something that we should not take for granted. I would agree in that context, therefore, that we should value that work of all our colleagues, irrespective of their contractual position.

I will have to cut Professor Ó hÓgartaigh off there.

Professor Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh

The response by colleagues in all our universities has been remarkable.

We must move on to the next speaker. If Professor Ó hÓgartaigh has any additional information, maybe he would forward it to the clerk to the committee for Senator Mullen. The next speaker is Deputy Nolan, followed by Deputy Cathal Crowe.

Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil libh as ucht an eolas a chuir sibh ós ár gcomhair ar maidin. I have only one question. The document refers to the need for the universities to be happy to engage with reform and, indeed, adapt to the changing skills needs of the country. In terms of the students from disadvantaged backgrounds, a HEA report showed that there is systematic disadvantage and, indeed, that there are barriers to students progressing to third level who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. I am wondering what reforms the colleges feel are needed in order to meet the needs of these students and, indeed, to change that and make sure that barrier is removed and that there is greater participation of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Mr. Jim Miley

The issues the Deputy raise are close to our heart. The Deputy will probably have seen the "My Uni Live" series on television over the past number of weeks which highlights the stories of seven students who have come from a background of various disadvantages, including disability or socioeconomic, and have made it through college.

The issue of access is one that has been driven by the universities. The disability access route to education, DARE, and higher education access route, HEAR, schemes, which are co-ordinated out of the IUA, were effectively set up by the universities and the State became involved in supporting those over the years. This needs to be rolled into the sustainable funding agenda.

On funding, not only do we need more money in the system, how that money is spent is equally important. The Minister has said that this issue has been shirked. On fees, etc., are there some people in society who can afford to pay fees and others who cannot? I think the answer is, "There are." Therefore, that issue needs to be tackled in any reform of the funding model. We are hugely supportive of that.

In some of our universities, upwards of 25% of the students come in through access schemes but we also know that there are schools within walking distance of some of those universities where less than 10% students go on to higher education. From a societal level, that is simply wrong and needs to be fixed. Universities would strongly advocate for a fix on that.

Deputy Crowe is skipping his question onto the next session. I have only two questions for Dr. Prendergast and Professor Ó hÓgartaigh. Do we have a sufficient number of places in our universities? Do we have a sufficient number of courses available to our students? Maybe Mr. Miley would like to comment on that as well. I will ask Dr. Prendergast first to come in and will call on Professor Ó hÓgartaigh to come in after that.

Dr. Patrick Prendergast

Arguably we must have more places in our higher education overall between universities and technical universities and institutes of technology. The majority now entering the job market come through some sort of third level education or further education activity. What we do not have is sufficient funding to run high-quality places in our universities. That is where the real issue lies.

We probably have broad enough curriculums and sufficient course. If I was asked where one would put more capacity, I would say probably in the healthcare system. So many of the courses are only really fundable through the revenue that international students generate and there is probably scope for expanding in some areas like that. The answer is, "Yes, but with more funding."

Professor Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh

I would agree with that. Participation rates in Ireland are thankfully very high at third level. Going back to the previous question around access, it is a much more complex issue starting in primary and secondary school.

Mar fhocal scoir nó mar críoch, if one looks at the impact of the Donogh O'Malley reforms at second level a generation later, there is now an opportunity for that investment to be replicated at third level. The challenge for us all is to know that university education and third level in general is very well regarded in Ireland and is something, as we know when we see the CAO discussion every September, people are keen on. It is part of an achievement that people see. How do we match that with investment? There is a chance for another revolution now, a generation later, to do as Donogh O'Malley did in the 1960s in second level education, and invest in education at third level. I would really encourage members of the committee and Members of the Oireachtas in general to see that opportunity.

Mr. Jim Miley

I might draw in my colleague, Ms Keating on this. We do not want to focus this on the teaching aspect. The research and innovation is the driver. If one looks at the clusters of medical technology, med-tech, information and communications technology, ICT, and biological-pharmaceutical, bio-pharma, around the country, they are all centred around or connected with universities and higher education institutions. Therefore, the pool of talent and innovation is hugely important. What we need is places for more researchers as well. Perhaps Ms Keating would pick up on that.

Dr. Lisa Keating

To follow on what Professor Ó hÓgartaigh said in terms of the transformation that has taken place, we have come a long way from the position in the 1970s. I have a ten-year-old who told me that Ireland used to be poor in the 1970s and asked how we got to here. If one thinks about it, it has been the investment in both educational research and the attracting of foreign direct investment, and then building up indigenous companies here in Ireland.

The research produces the talent and the ideas. We started to invest strongly in that a number of years ago. It transformed the sector and brought all the big players from around the globe here. It helped to support Irish industry, even through the financial crisis. Nevertheless, we cannot just keep going back to that well. We need to replenish it and that is the challenge we face.

My remaining questions can be answered by whoever wishes. Are we doing enough for the less well-off to give them an opportunity to attend university? I refer in particular to universities. Perhaps Professor Ó hÓgartaigh and Dr. Prendergast will each respond briefly.

Professor Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh

We can do more. It is a complex issue, going back to first and second levels. We need more role models. We have excellent role models in NUI Galway and there are others in the other universities. We are very keen in NUI Galway and in the other universities to do more. The challenge for us is enabling access to education for students who need it, and how we accommodate that. We have a responsibility as a university sector, as does the education sector more broadly.

Dr. Patrick Prendergast

I agree with Professor Ó hÓgartaigh. We can do more and we have to do more. Our county is one where participation rates are not as high as in other parts of the country. We need to do more but it does not start with universities. It starts with secondary schools and even primary schools. The education system needs to deliver the great talent of the country into our universities and we have work to do to achieve that.

That concludes this session, which has had to be shorter than usual because of Covid restrictions. We will invite our guests back before the committee for a longer session. We wanted to get the current programme completed before the Christmas period in order that we could include it in our report. I thank Mr. Miley, Dr. Keating, Dr. Prendergast and Professor Ó hÓgartaigh. I apologise that at the start of the meeting I was not aware of how to pronounce the professor's name.

Professor Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh

That is fine.

In the future, I would like, along with other committee members, to visit our guests' facilities when it is safe for us to do so in light of Covid. It is important that committee members see exactly what our guests have to offer in their places of education. I thank them for all the work they have done over recent months, through very difficult times, to try to educate people. I say that on behalf of all the committee members. I thank Mr. Miley and Dr. Keating for the work they do for universities and I urge them to continue that very good work.

Sitting suspended at 12.43 p.m. and resumed at 12.47 p.m.

I welcome our guests for the second part of the meeting. I will ask Senator Dolan to take the Chair after I introduce them. I propose that she let the Deputies speak first because they have to go to the convention centre for the sitting of the Dáil. Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome Dr. Joseph Ryan, CEO of the Technological Higher Education Association, THEA; Professor Vincent Cunnane, president of Limerick Institute of Technology, LIT, and chair of THEA; Mr. Paul Hannigan, president of LIT; and Dr. Patricia Mulcahy, whom I know very well from the south east and who is the president of the Institute of Technology Carlow and deputy chair of THEA.

Our guests are attending the meeting to discuss the effects of Covid-19 on higher education institutions and, specifically, on admissions, the reopening of institutes of education and technological universities, funding and future reforms. The format of the meeting is that I will invite Dr. Ryan to make a brief opening statement followed by questions from members, who will have four-minute slots. As he is probably aware, the committee will publish his opening statement following the meeting.

Before I begin, I remind our guests of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. Our guests have an absolute defence against anything they say at the meeting but are expected not to abuse this privilege. The Chair will interrupt if they do so and I ask them to comply with the instructions of the Chair.

I invite Dr. Ryan to make his opening statement.

Senator Aisling Dolan took the Chair.

Dr. Joseph Ryan

We appreciate this opportunity to engage on the effects of Covid-19 and our future trajectory. We represent the sector that is the key to broadening access and one with a proud record of addressing disadvantage. The higher education system went underground from March but not to hibernate. We successfully completed our programmes. The response from students was positive and we acknowledge the flexibility and innovation of staff in ensuring that the learning outcomes were delivered and assessed. An evaluation of these measures by Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, concluded they were successful in maintaining academic standards in unprecedented circumstances.

A worry was that the crisis would exacerbate inequality. The challenges of ensuring a reasonable measure of equity and support for vulnerable learners were significant. There were concerns about access to devices and adequate broadband, and mitigating educational disadvantage emerged as a principal theme. THEA made its contribution to ensuring that the ambitions of applicants were met through the leaving certificate calculated grades approach. This included the provision of additional places on high-demand programmes.

The CAO outcome realised an intake consistent with recent years and similarly, the early indications from this year’s student record system suggest that retention has not been disproportionately impacted. We are currently working collaboratively to facilitate the phasing in of increased in-person activity in semester 2. The discretion afforded autonomous institutes is key. The nature of our pedagogical approach along with a high proportion of studio and practice-based subjects requires us to maintain a higher level of on-campus learning, and this is in concord with the desire of learners.

Ireland took some considerable trouble to care for international students from the outset of this pandemic. This enhanced our reputation as a safe destination for study abroad. The joint committee will wish to be apprised that despite this reputational gain, there is a significant concern over access to medical insurance, the cost of which has increased exponentially following the recent decision of the Court of Appeal. We request that the joint committee take an interest in this matter as failure to address it will undoubtedly impact our ability to maintain Ireland’s place as an attractive destination.

The capacity of students to work in a blended environment over a prolonged period remains in question. Notwithstanding the practical implications such as accommodation, at core were considerations of increasing isolation and the undeniable reduction of the student experience. In THEA we have worked to facilitate surrogate opportunities for socialisation.

The positive mental and physical benefit of participation in sport and activity is a contribution to health and well-being. Our institutions have invested in excellent sports facilities, both indoor and outdoor. They are managed by experienced professional staff whose priority is the safety of their service users. Our advice is that we remove anomalies and ensure that students are allowed access to their controlled sports facilities and offer them safe occasion for social connection.

The initial challenges of Covid-19 for research and innovation related to access to facilities and subjects. Looking ahead and consistent with the strictures of the legislation, we are building capacity for our technological universities. This is necessary to deliver on the expectations of exciting new entities to meet their obligations as set out in framing national policy. It speaks also to the current European focus on distributed excellence. The potential attaching to aligning research largely under a single department offers opportunity to effect necessary structural change that can be the prerequisite to realising the fullest benefit from the new landscape. We need to move from a workload allocation model which focuses on teaching contact hours and does not incentivise academic staff to engage in research and innovation and from a promotional pathway which provides the opportunity for academic staff to take up only managerial roles. In addition, the financial challenge speaks to the need for a time-limited research and innovation capacity building fund to leverage the work of the TU Research Network, TURN, report and the technological university transformation fund.

Transition and capacity building informed our recent budget submission and, as the expectations of higher education as a driver of economic development become more explicit, the sector needs to be equipped to deliver on this ambition. The investment requested can be categorised under four topical headings, namely, digitalisation and infrastructure, human capital, research and innovation, and climate. The intent is to equip institutions to deliver on key regional economic growth and greater social inclusion.

We inherit an anachronistic system based on input hours and the goal is to work with partners to arrive at an alternative lecturing contract that can better reflect the advanced mission of the TU while respecting the contributions of committed staff to teaching, research, and service. This revised workload model will have to triangulate with a broadened career pathway. The challenge in this is to realise an agreed approach balancing professional autonomy with accountability. The Minister, Deputy Harris, has set out four pillars of this vision for the new department. This all-island dimension triangulates with the Shared Island vision, which is of particular interest to our sector and especially with Border institutes in Letterkenny and Dundalk.

It is appreciated that this committee will next year weigh the economic advice from the European Commission on the Cassells report. That significant investment in higher education is required is accepted. The question will be on how that sustainable future might be fuelled. At a time of unprecedented change in our sector, we look forward to working with the committee on advancing this agenda.

I thank Dr. Ryan, and I thank him, Professor Cunnane, Mr. Hannigan and Dr. Mulcahy very much for joining us today. I am in the role as deputy chair but I very much agree that the role of the technological universities is to increase research excellence in regional areas. To do that, our staff need to be able to allocate time to do research and to ensure that we can have that technology transfer and commercialisation into the real world.

I would like to direct questions in the first instance to Professor Cunnane from Limerick Institute of Technology, LIT. We are greatly excited in County Clare about the prospects of further collaboration with LIT and the potential of technological university status for this college. Will Professor Cunnane outline and elaborate on what has happened and is going to happen over the next ten or so months, please?

Professor Vincent Cunnane

It is a very exciting time for the Athlone Institute of Technology, AIT, and LIT consortium, which will have a great impact on the mid-west and the midlands. It is a very big area, covering 15% of the country and touches on many counties. We put in our application to the Minister, Deputy Harris, and to the Higher Education Authority, HEA last Friday week. We are aware that the Higher Education Authority is currently putting together the international panel which will review our application. We expect that to happen on a timeline of early February of next year. We are very hopeful of a very successful outcome in that space and we expect, given a successful outcome with the international panel, that a recommendation would go to the Minister, it is hoped by the end of March or early April, and that we would be appointed on 1 September 2021.

That will be hugely exciting. LIT has a campus in Ennis. As this transpires, we hope, and the institute becomes a technological university, what benefits could Clare and the Ennis campus see? Will there be new research development opportunities or new jobs created as a result of this higher status for the college?

Professor Vincent Cunnane

It is going to be very interesting. For the first time, towns like Clonmel, Thurles, Athlone and indeed Ennis become university towns. It is a way of marketing those towns in a way that could never have happened before, despite having had an institute of technology present. It brings added value to the marketing of these towns. It is to be hoped it will act to attract further foreign direct investment and to embed current direct investment. We also hope that the supply chains for the indigenous companies will also be enhanced by this activity. The opportunities at the new campus that we have set up in recent times in Ennis, co-ordinated with Clare County Council, are very significant in terms of increasing the portfolio of programmes but also seeing wider activities emerge there. We are already seeing Springboard-type courses emerging there. The opportunities for the new institution in Ennis are significant but also for those areas around those institutions to benefit from the fact that they now have a university-level education in those towns.

The Committee on Transport and Communications Networks was meeting in this very room yesterday and we were remarking that the longest runway in Ireland is in Shannon, which is capable of taking the largest aircraft, and the largest jetty in Ireland is in Moneypoint in County Clare. There are significant opportunities for aviation and marine courses in the region. Is there anything in terms of infrastructure or other requirements that Professor Cunnane needs to enable this project to see the light of day?

Professor Vincent Cunnane

One of the things that has facilitated this interaction between Limerick and Athlone has been the motorway that now extends from Limerick as far as Athenry, and we can turn right there, head to Athlone and arrive there in a very short period of time. One of the reasons that those two regions had not really come together was the lack of a very significant road. It was necessary to go through Birr and Borrisokane to get between the two. The actual road infrastructure is a critical piece of what has allowed this interaction to develop and will allow further interactions to develop. Being very parochial, one of things on the Limerick side is the northern distributor road from the Clare end into the Castletroy end, and it has been labelled the knowledge corridor. It will link this new institution at Coonagh to the University of Limerick. That is where real development potential, both from a socioeconomic aspect as well as the further economic aspect, would occur. If I was advocating for one thing, it would be the northern distributor road. We would also like to think that we will do much more with our cousins in Cork, so we will also take the M20 and the Foynes motorway.

I thank Professor Cunnane and wish him every success and he will have plenty of support.

We are running a little behind time so I will ask the witnesses to keep to the time allocated. I am delighted to hear about the motorway, and we hope Ballinasloe will be one of those elements in terms of a future campus. By way of correction, it is Dr. Mulcahy, President of IT Carlow.

I thank the witnesses for the presentations. I will have to bring things west and talk about the Connacht Ulster Alliance, CUA, which is an extremely exciting development and I commend all the work that has been done on it. I am aware a detailed submission will be made in January and there are some other ways to go but I look forward to that because the economic and social potential of it is enormous. It is a game changer for the west and the north west, linking up with Magee College, and it is the most exciting thing that could happen.

I commend the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, GMIT, also and IT Sligo on the efforts they are making to link with industry and drive that reform. There are extremely good people in those institutions.

We need to address a couple of issues, one of which is the funding for online full-time and part-time students. Going through the life cycle, the courses are put on to suit the students, and rightly so, but then there is a block in terms of the funding. The witnesses might speak to that.

The other issue I am concerned about, which may seem minor, is the €250 recently announced by the Minister, Deputy Harris, which is very welcome. For students who are finishing their course, however, whether that be after two or four years, and we are talking about a credit note, do the witnesses have a system in place within their institutions to deliver on those payments?

Professor Vincent Cunnane

I will start off with that question. I thank the Deputy. Mr. Hannigan, as president of Letterkenny Institute of Technology, might take the first part of that question on the CUA being a driving force for that whole consortium.

Mr. Paul Hannigan

I thank the Deputy for the question. We met on what was virtually the last day of the Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. On the issue with regard to the consortium between Athlone Institute of Technology and Limerick Institute of Technology, as Professor Cunnane has outlined, the CUA has been an important development for the three institutes of technology but more for the region it operates within and for the students who will take advantage of it. We are on target to complete a submission before the end of December. We have other issues to deal with in January so we hope to make a submission by the end of January. That is our current target.

A good deal of work has been done on it over the years, with many ups and downs along the way, but we are in a good position now. We will be slightly behind Dr. Cunnane’s institution in terms of the timescale but we expect to have the technological university up and running by 1 January 2022. That is the target we have in play. We hope it will address the issues the Deputy has outlined and bring the west-north west together as a very strong region. The three institutes have been very good at doing that over the past while. We have been acting as one on a number of different issues and we have secured significant funding for a number of joint initiatives that are driving across the three institutes. It has been a very positive time from our perspective.

In the context of the issue around funding, Professor Ryan might come back to that or Professor Cunnane in terms of the €250 grant, but looking at what has happened over the Covid period in the context of the institutes of technology, we have got significant support from the Department in terms of funding to try to bring us through that very difficult period. There has been significant innovation by both staff and students to continue on working from March of last year right through to where we are now. We hope we are seeing some light at the end of the tunnel for the second semester and trying to get more students back on campus.

We have all managed to keep students on campus for a period of time, with varying percentages at different times, but that is important in terms of their personal and social development. We want to do that more coming into the second semester and there is a little more confidence around that now. We will be addressing that in more detail in the next while.

That is an important point about the €250. Do the witnesses have the system in place to be able to deal with that?

Professor Vincent Cunnane

On the latter part of the Deputy’s questions on the funding side, we need to separate out the Covid-19 response moneys and the €168 million, which, as Mr. Hannigan said, is very welcome and has allowed us to do the things that will ensure that our students meet their learning outcomes.

I am sorry to interrupt Professor Cunnane but he might revert to Deputy Conway-Walsh with a written submission.

Professor Vincent Cunnane


My apologies but we are limited for time.

Professor Vincent Cunnane

We have a solution to the €250 for the fourth years also.

Good. I might contact Professor Cunnane separately about that.

I will start with a quick question and the witnesses might come back to me on it. What percentage of students were attending courses in their institutions which it was not possible to deliver remotely? How many were on campus and how many were off campus since September?

Mr. Paul Hannigan

In our case in Letterkenny, we have a student population of approximately 3,500. We had, on average, 750 students on campus per day, perhaps not the same 750 every day, at the beginning when we were at level 3 plus at the end of September. That reduced with the introduction of level 5 to approximately 350 or 400 per day. We have managed to keep students on campus over a period of time in terms of the practical, lab-based elements of programmes and to keep that going. I got a note from our students union president yesterday to say that these students count themselves as being very lucky students that they have been able to do that. We are concerned about some students who have not been able to get on campus.

I am sorry but we are tight for time. I just want to get an overall picture and I have other issues to raise. Do the witnesses have a figure, even in terms of broad numbers?

Professor Vincent Cunnane

I would say up to 25% of students are on campus at any one time. The short answer is that it would be between 20% and 25%. There is nobody who has not been allowed on campus. Dr. Mulcahy might have a point to make on that also.

I just want to get a sense of the numbers because I know there are many courses that it would not be possible to deliver remotely or deliver all of them.

In terms of my subsequent questions, I acknowledge very positive news in terms of Munster technological university. When I was small it was still the regional technical college, RTC. Many people still call it that so they are finding it hard to transition to the Munster technological university but I am sure we will get used to that name also.

Does Deputy Ó Laoghaire want that question-----

That was just a statement more than a question. The point has been made to me previously that, per student, the funding the witnesses’ institutions get is not quite the same as that received by the previous witnesses. They do a great job also, and I am not looking to pit anyone against another, but that point has been made to me.

In terms of technological universities, in Cork I think of electronics and the pharmaceutical industry benefiting but there seems to be great potential in terms of the creative industries also, with Creative Ireland and so on. The witnesses might comment briefly on that.

Professor Vincent Cunnane

I will let Dr. Mulcahy get in also. On the issue of funding, I was trying to separate it from the Covid one to the systemic issues around funding for the higher education sector in particular. We await the return of the Cassells report to this room later next year. There is a difference between us. Moving from institute of technology to technological university status does not bring that change in the funding of our sector. There is a disparity between the two entities. On average, it would be approximately €1,000 per student, which is very significant. Higher education in general needs significant systemic funding, but this sector, either as an institute of technology or a technological university, needs to be brought up to the level of the current university funding. Does Dr. Mulcahy want to come back in on the last question?

Dr. Patricia Mulcahy

The answer to the last question is fine, if the Vice Chairman wants to move on. I was just going to elaborate in response to the question about the status of the students and the courses that it was not possible to deliver online. In my institution we have approximately 9,000 students, about 5,000 of whom are full-time. As Professor Cunnane said, under level 3 restrictions, approximately 20% to 25% of the students were on campus. However, a distinction was made between different discipline areas and that was the elaboration I wanted to make. On particular disciplines, students would have had between 20% to 100% of their contact hours on campus, and that determined the discipline area they were in and the facilities. For example, with small groups in areas like design, 100% of students were on campus. It was the same for engineering groups in that 100% of students were on campus. That on campus presence was important in terms of delivering on the learning outcomes. However, in the business or humanities areas where there are large lectures, that was much more challenging. They might have only 20% of their contact. For the period we were in level 5, it did go mainly online, but as of this week, certainly in my institution, we are beginning to bring them back on campus.

We are trying to keep that within one day to enable their accommodation and facilitate them with commuting. It was just to elaborate on this.

I asked about the creative side.

Professor Vincent Cunnane

The creative side is something we all work on. It is a very important part of it. That creative industry is growing. Whether it is the Limerick School of Art and Design or Crawford there are huge opportunities. Design is at the heart of these entities and design-led thinking and theories are working their way into all aspects of engineering and science. The creatives and traditional engineering and science side of things are moving closer together. They are working together in an interdisciplinary way. Like the Deputy, I see huge opportunities for this development. It also puts our sector at the heart of that development.

If the other witnesses have responses they can submit them to Deputy Ó Laoghaire. Senator Byrne has four minutes.

Four minutes is rather difficult but it is important to acknowledge the leadership of the institutions and the staff and students over this very difficult period. Others have cited the move towards the technological universities, and I am looking forward to seeing a technological university in the south east on 1 January 2022. I wish all of the consortia well in progressing towards this and the transformation of what were the RTCs and institutes of technology to the technological university landscape.

I will throw a couple of rapid fire questions together to get a response and the Vice Chairman might allow some extra time, given there are only a few of us left. There have been financial challenges for the sector as a whole. I do not know whether it comes down to individual institutions. What do the witnesses believe is the combined deficit now as a result of Covid for the entire sector and the financial challenges being faced? How is it best to bridge it?

Dr. Ryan mentioned the TU research network, TURN, and building research capacity in the technological university sector will be important. How best does he feel we can do this and what support can the State provide? I want to look at the role the institutes of technology and technological universities will play in Covid recovery. The institutions have been very innovative. We are moving into the next phase and we have vaccines that are coming along. There is research to be done not just on the medical and scientific side but also the social sciences side about how we are living and how we will recover from Covid and the long-term implications. How do the witnesses feel the universities and the institutes of technology can help with the vaccination programme that will be rolled out in the next year? As the vaccines are rolled out what will be the assurances that it will be safe for our students to come back onto campus?

Professor Vincent Cunnane

I will ask Dr. Ryan to come in on the combined deficit, if he has sight of it at present.

Dr. Joseph Ryan

I thank Senator Byrne for the question. We did at lot of work collegially with the Department on this and we put in a figure very early in the arrival of the pandemic, which was of the measure of just south of €100 million. I must put on the record that we have had excellent support from the new Department and the Minister. The Covid response moneys that our chair has spoken about, the July stimulus, which has been mentioned in response to other questions, have been very helpful. As has been referenced a few times, the Cassells money will be huge and how this will be reconciled and how it is fuelled will be the big discussion over the next while. In the interests of time, I might leave it there and we can follow up with further written responses.

Professor Vincent Cunnane

The TURN report has the potential to be a blueprint for the way we need to go forward. The TU research network brought together all the emergent technological universities as well as Technological University Dublin. All of us are working to this strategy. It is about enabling the strategy and the moneys flowing into it. The €90 million transformational fund will be significant. The first €30 million has been produced for this year and we need to ensure the €30 million is there in each of the next two years. In a system that have been starved of strategic funding, the ability to direct funding to research and innovation in a manner the TURN document has done and facilitating it through the technological university transformation fund is significant. There is a latency in our system on research and innovation that we, as presidents and leaders, have not been able to drive. What is happening through the technological university transformation fund is allowing that transformation to take place in a systemic way.

I will bring in others in a moment. The role of the institutes of technology in Covid recovery is significant. As the Senator rightly said, we are very much at the forefront of the Springboard-type programmes, the July stimulus and the human capital initiative. The transformation and reimagining of our economy as people need to move from older traditional approaches to newer approaches is embedded in a lot of the Springboard-type programmes we put on. They are available and distributed throughout the regions through the institutes of technology and technological university network and working with the universities also. The ability to do this is in every corner of the country. It will be part of the recovery. The Senator is right about the research that is needed on the social side.

I want to ask very briefly about the assurances on the campuses being reopened. It is a very important message that we get to send out.

Very briefly, I will give 20 seconds for this and we might get a response in writing. My apologies to Dr. Mulcahy.

Dr. Patricia Mulcahy

We never left campus, even under level 5. What we are looking at doing is going back to the timetables, schedules and arrangements we had under level 3 from the beginning of term onwards. We have had no clusters or outbreaks. We have a lot of expertise on health and safety and a lot of risk assessments, mitigation strategies and safety measures put in place. Our students are working really well with those, as are our staff, and hats off to them for all of it. We will see more of the same in continuing the safe environment.

The response to be provided will add to that. We need to vacate the room by 1.30 p.m. due to Covid and we need to be conscious of the time. We will allocate the time between the speakers as best we can.

As the witnesses can see, politicians are getting used to brevity but I am glad to say parochialism is alive and well. The commitment to parochialism continues. I will focus on two issues because of the limited time. These are the interest in investigating alternative lecturing contracts and looking at the workload allocation, teaching hours and the lack of incentive to do research. It is not just because I am wondering, if the electorate of the NUI is unkind enough to send me back to TU Dublin, what type of job I would be going back to and whether I would have to lash into a PhD or something.

Are the witnesses of the view that sometimes there are very good teachers who are not so hot on research and very good researchers who are not so hot on teaching and who might look at the students as privileged eavesdroppers and not much more? In the future the witnesses are trying to imagine, are they looking for different kinds of roles or pretty much everybody to be engaging in research? Perhaps that is less parochial. There is nothing wrong with parochialism but it is a more philosophical question about what future the witnesses envisage.

I said earlier the phrase "blended learning" has been a pill-sweetening phrase. In reality, it masks a situation about which people are very unhappy, which is that they have had a significant loss of college experience. We spoke about this a lot with the university heads. I am sure the same is true with the institutes of technology. Is there a big morale issue with this? I presume the witnesses are looking forward to getting everybody back. I know that some college courses where there is a high demand and practicals are particularly important will have to be back anyway. I would like the witnesses to address the question of the morale issue in all of this and what they find and see.

Professor Vincent Cunnane

I thank the Senator. They are two very big questions, which demand a longer answer. The institutes of technology are in a big transition. There is a lot of research going on. The current contract dates back many decades and the question for us is that we need to review it in light of where we are going.

Research has been embedded in the institutes of technology for many years but the Higher Education Authority is only catching up with that through its recurrent grant allocation model, RGAM. Only €5 million is available directly for research in the institutes of technology as opposed to universities. We need to see that amount increased by a multiple thus ensuring that research is a core part, as we recognise it, and is financially recognised.

I am the former vice-president for research. Not everyone does research. That is the issue. We have great researchers and teachers; there is a broad spectrum. We do not want to see everybody doing everything. The contract and the way we reward people through academic progression must be through multiple paths. There are no career progression paths for academics other than a management role. That is the key issue so we need to incentive people to do that. They also need to see academic progression that allows them to earn more money, as we would all like to do, but they are not afforded that opportunity at the moment.

Senator Dolan is absolutely right on blended learning but we need to separate this. Nobody has come back to the sector to say the pedagogical approach they were adopting is not fit for purpose. What they are lacking, which was alluded to by the Senator, is the student experience. We need more of the sports side of things and the wider college experience, which includes bringing back clubs and societies.

Professor Cunnane has spoken with great passion, which is excellent, but I must limit witnesses to 30 seconds when making additional comments.

Professor Vincent Cunnane

That was a subject for Senator Mullen's PhD.

Mr. Paul Hannigan

On the last issue, I spoke to some student union presidents yesterday. As Professor Cunnane has said, they are very happy with the way lectures are being run and with their interaction with lecturers but they miss the interaction on campus. We want to get them back for longer than is currently the case and build on that with the addition of clubs, societies and sports activities.

Dr. Joseph Ryan

Perhaps Senator Mullen will recall that when the Technological Universities Act went through the discussion was about maintaining our great tradition while advancing at the same time. The challenge for the sector is to have greater flexibility so we can reflect on what Deputy Conway-Walsh asked about lifelong learning and fuel that much better. We are at the start of an inclusive conversation with all partners. It will take a while but the idea is to co-create that.

I ask the witnesses to forward to Senator Mullen any further responses they may have.

I thank the Acting Chairman.

I am the Fine Gael Party Seanad spokesperson on education and further and higher education and I spoke on these matters in the Seanad yesterday. I am delighted that €90 million will be invested in technological universities through the transition fund. That funding will come on stream quickly. I was very pleased to hear that the Connacht Ulster Alliance is looking at achieving technological university status by 2022. That is fantastic.

Covid has had a huge impact on income. I am curious to know what has been its impact on income streams from international students attending the emerging technological universities. At the THEA colloquium, which we spoke about previously, there were great examples of research in Athlone Institute of Technology, Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, with marine biology, and Carlow and Letterkenny institutes of technology. How do the witnesses expect income streams to increase from organisations providing research funding at an EU level and from Horizon 2020, as well as from Science Foundation Ireland and Enterprise Ireland? Other funding streams will come in when we make a decision on the Cassells report, as the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Simon Harris, is committed to doing at the start of next year.

Professor Vincent Cunnane

Once an institution becomes a technological university, there is much more critical mass and the depth of research activity increases. We will be able to bring together teams that will allow us to make an even greater impact on the European Union side. Dr. Ryan and I are working very closely with SFI. Traditionally, we have drawn a large amount of SFI funding but we are getting an increasing amount of such funding as it comes in. Enterprise Ireland and IDA Ireland were key sources for us and that will continue because of our applied research. We are broadening our spectrum of research in the technological sector. The income streams will improve and we will will take advantage of that. A number of us are involved in the European universities networks, which brings in money and allows deeper pan-European collaboration.

Dr. Joseph Ryan

I invite Dr. Mulcahy to give her insight about international students attending institutes.

Dr. Patricia Mulcahy

The broader international student population right across the sector is very significant. Through the co-ordinated efforts of THEA and the supports it has provided, it is a very important income source for us at the moment. The sector has been hit by Covid, for example, there has been a 34% reduction in international students attending my institution. The difficulties generated by the pandemic have been felt on our side and in the home countries of these students. We need to get back on that. The international students provide a very important income source for the institutes. The international students bring an awful lot more than revenue to the higher education institutions. We are very careful to make sure that they are balanced across disciplines and groups. We try to ensure they get the experience they seek and that our students gain experience with lots of different nationalities, diversity and richness. All of that leads to other initiatives and co-operation with international universities. International students are a critical part of technological universities. The institutes of technology have made significant strides in that area, particularly in recent years.

Mr. Paul Hannigan

On the impact of Brexit on research, there will be opportunities for collaborations with institutions in Northern Ireland specifically. I know SFI is looking at that and its representatives had a meeting with THEA last week. We have received funding from INTERREG, etc., for specific buildings and research projects. That funding has been really helpful and we hope that will continue in some guise as we move forward.

Professor Vincent Cunnane

To respond to the question on the availability of the sector to help with vaccinations, we are open to doing so. A number of test centres are located on our campuses and we work very closely with the HSE and everyone else. We are available to set up centres to facilitate that.

That is wonderful to hear. The third level sector has been phenomenal in terms of its engagement in our response to Covid.

I thank the delegations from the THEA and the IUA. Given that there is a recurring funding crisis, which is an issue that has been raised here and the additional deficits due to Covid, I ask that the committee treat funding as a priority and that the Chair arrange a specific discussion on that issue soon.

I thank the Deputy. I look forward to having the delegations before us again very soon. We will speak to the Chairman, Deputy Kehoe, about that.

I thank the witnesses from the THEA for attending. This discussion has been as beneficial and informative for the committee as our first session with the delegation from the IUA. The discussions have given the committee a clear insight into the key issues and concerns of the higher education sector. I apologise for putting the witnesses under a little pressure with time. I promise we will have more time when they appear before us again. Our time was shorter today as we had two associations in attendance. This is an exciting time and I appreciate everything the THEA has done. I look forward to seeing the witnesses again soon.

At our next meeting, we will meet the CEO of Education and Training Boards Ireland to discuss the effects of Covid-19 on further education institutions.

The joint committee adjourned at 1.30 p.m. until 11.30 a.m. on Thursday, 10 December 2020.