Future Expansion of the Technological Universities: Discussion

I remind members, when they are giving a contribution or asking a question, to confirm that they are in Leinster House. Instead of six-minute slots, we will have five-minute slots. I ask people to be aware of that and to co-operate with the Chair. I remind members to make sure that their mobile phones are switched off.

Can I get agreement on the draft minutes of 16 February 2021? Agreed.

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Niall Collins, and his officials. The Minister, Deputy Harris, will join the meeting at about 4.30 p.m. I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Collins, to read the opening statement.

We thank the committee for the opportunity to discuss the crucial issue of the progression of the technological university agenda. We believe it is well recognised that, for the past 50 years, the regional technical colleges and subsequently the institutes of technology have delivered an excellent service in providing vocational, technical, technological and professional skills and qualifications to generations of students. The strengths of the sector also reside in its strong links with local and regional business and enterprise and their practical approach to teaching and learning, informed by applied research. These institutions provide pathways for progression into higher education which, through either geography or circumstance, may not otherwise have been within the reach of many young and not so young people.

The next step in the evolution of the higher education journey is a step change, which will build upon the strengths of the sector and ally them with the strengths of traditional universities, like more theoretical research, state-of-the-art facilities and international research. We are endeavouring to afford everyone the opportunity, wherever they are located, to avail of the best that higher education has to offer. When it comes to technological universities, this applies across the entire range of the national framework of qualifications from level 6 to level 10, with apprenticeships also a vital component.

Fundamentally, this is all about the type of tertiary education system we should aspire to and how we ensure we nurture the skills and qualities needed to survive and thrive in an increasingly globally competitive, digitised and automated world. Technological universities are rooted in their communities and that connectedness on a range of levels is their strength. I emphasise this is not simply about a skills pipeline of talent to rejuvenate regional development and socio-economic progress. Although those are necessary objectives, we also want to nurture genuine learning environments that are welcoming and student-focused and which enable each person to fulfil their potential and to avail of academic freedom, a lively spirit of inquiry and personal development, which are the hallmarks of true university level education.

Much has been achieved since the enactment of the Technological Universities Act 2018 almost three years ago. At that time, there were 14 institutes of technology of varying sizes on the higher education landscape. In that very short space of time, relatively speaking, we have consolidated the technological sector to nine institutes alongside two technological universities of far greater critical mass and capacity. Technological University Dublin vies with UCD to be the largest higher education institution in the state. Together, more than 43,000 additional students are receiving university-level education and hopefully will graduate in due course with university qualifications.

We received another application for technological university designation last November, from Athlone and Limerick institutes of technology. They have just been through the advisory panel process element of the prescribed legislative assessment and decision-making process. If ultimately successful, this would see university education provision introduced and expanded in the midlands and mid-west, opening up opportunities all along the Shannon. On the first day of this year, Munster Technological University, MTU, was formally established, marking the establishment of the second technological university in the State, the first outside the capital, and an important milestone for higher education in Ireland and, in particular, for the south west. We anticipate, all things being equal, receiving two more applications for technological university designation in the next number of months, which will seek to replicate the achievements of Dublin and Munster in the west, north west and south east. By this time next year, there is every possibility, without prejudice to the legislative process, that the landscape could have shifted radically once more and we could potentially have five technological universities and two stand-alone institutes of technology.

The Government has invested heavily in the technological university agenda with over €65 million invested through landscape and transformation funding. The transformation fund will expend €90 million up to 2023, with €34.3 million allocated in the first tranche last October. In total, over €120 million will have been invested in technological university development and progression. We can assure the committee of our strong commitment to ensuring that all areas can benefit from the advantages of a region-centric, multi-campus technological university, with the opportunity to increase capital investment, including foreign direct investment, skills creation and retention, higher education access and increased research capacity, enabling people everywhere to be empowered to play to their strengths regionally, nationally and internationally.

I refer to some issues raised recently in relation to the efforts of the Technological University of South East Ireland consortium, where IT Carlow and Waterford IT are doing incredible work to finalise the application for designation. It is vital to the nature of this project that we do not allow a divisive campaign to develop, which would be grossly unfair to both institutes and to the staff, students and other stakeholders who are working so assiduously to create something of real benefit to the entirety of the region.

The concept of a technological university is founded on a merging of equals and parity of esteem, and we hope that everyone would seek to assist and advance technological university proposals positively. Technological university establishment in the south east will bring significant higher education and regional development opportunities to the entire region, together with the prospect of prioritised capital investment attaching as recommended by the seminal 2019 TU Research Network, TURN, report.

We stress that it is our clear intention to use technological university establishment to expand and improve higher education in Waterford and regionally to increase investment, attract more students and offer more people an opportunity to study in a university campus in their county or region. We want to see expansion and a larger footprint for higher education in Waterford, and the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste have also been clear on this point. We thank the Deputies and Senators for their kind attention and look forward to the discussion.

I thank the Minister of State. I welcome the Minister, Deputy Harris, and understand that he could not be in two places at once.

So the Chairman knows, the Cabinet is still meeting but I chose this location. I am delighted to join the committee and I am sorry for the inconvenience caused by being late.

I hope it does not make any decisions on higher education when the Minister is not there.

I welcome the Minister and the Minister of State.

The question I have for the Minister does not relate to the content of the Minister of State, Deputy Collins's speech so much as to an issue he has already been advised I raised at the committee. I proposed for our work programme that we examine the developing links between Irish third level education institutions and Chinese institutions. The Minister will be aware we passed a motion unanimously in the Seanad in November calling on the Government to use its diplomatic and trade channels to pressurise China over its abuses of human rights, particularly regarding the Uighur community. However, there is significant concern among the staff of various third level institutions in Ireland about the developing links. I am thinking, for example, of UCC's proposed joint college arrangement with Minzu University of China. There is also the question of the Confucius institutes established in UCD and UCC. Some countries have withdrawn from such arrangements. I am thinking of Sweden, the University of Chicago and Penn State University severing links with the institutes because they are seen as China projecting its power and there are significant human rights and human dignity concerns about the freedom particularly of Chinese staff and students coming to countries from China. For example, do they have the same freedom within and outside the curriculum or are there fears for their welfare, safety and freedom of thought and expression because of the Chinese Government’s wolf warrior diplomacy these days? These concerns are not imaginary. There are instances of-----

We want to give the Minister time to reply as well.

Okay. My question is clear. We have written to the Minister. Will he be replying to the letter from the committee because, I imagine, it will factor in our thinking as to whether to deal with this? If he would care to comment on this now, I would be very grateful.

I thank Senator Mullen for his questions. I acknowledge the correspondence from the committee and, from my recollection, the fact the Senator raised this matter again in Seanad yesterday. I certainly read comments about that yesterday evening. I would make a few points. Regarding the specific institutions referenced in the correspondence, I have been in touch, through my Department, with the three universities. The presidents of those universities have confirmed to me this issue will be raised at their next governing authority meeting. My intention was to then send the committee the correspondence I receive from universities, which might allow the committee to decide in its deliberations what actions it wishes to take. I should add that national policy is supportive of educational engagement with China and other partner countries, but there is also a strong commitment to ethical internalisation. At a national level, Ireland places significant importance on our educational relationship with other partner countries, including China. Our national strategy identifies a range of benefits from international collaboration for a small globalised economy such as Ireland. These partnerships create links and relationships for Ireland and for many partners at individual, institutional and country level that will bring further engagement and economic activity into the future. There is also significant benefit for international students who come to Ireland or who study in institutions with a strong Irish connection. This engagement is particularly important in building relationships with countries like China where we do not have strong historical diaspora relationships. I should advise the committee and Senator Mullen that I plan to develop a new international education strategy and to publish a review of the existing international education strategy. I hope to bring both proposals to Cabinet probably within the next month. Of course, I would be very happy to engage with this committee. However, in terms of next steps, I have referred the three specific matters raised by Senator Mullen and the committee to the presidents of those universities and I am awaiting replies from their governing authorities, which I will share in full with the committee.

I thank the Minister for that.

I thank the Senator.

Senator Mullen has 50 seconds remaining.

I am grateful for that reply. I am happy to cede my remaining time to allow the committee proceed with its business. I have other questions about student loans and such matters but they can wait for another day.

I thank the Senator for that. The next speaker is Deputy Alan Farrell to be followed by Senator Malcolm Byrne. As Deputy Farrell does not appear to be available, I will move on to Senator Byrne and come back to Deputy Farrell.

I agree with many of the concerns expressed by Senator Mullen. We should have positive relationships, educationally, with China but we need to have ethical considerations.

This discussion is on the future of the technological sector and, unsurprisingly, I will start by raising an issue of regional focus and move on to the broader issue. I welcome the commitment made by Minister of State, Deputy Collins, and referenced in the opening statements by the Minister and the Minister of State, on the broad ambition for a university for the south east, which the Minister, Deputy Harris, might outline. He spoke about prioritised capital investment, but what we do not want to see in the south east is simply a name change. When we consider a multi-campus university with campuses in Waterford, Carlow and Wexford, it is crucial there would also be significant investments to allow the technological universities to be able to complete not only internationally but nationally. I am conscious the Minister was on South East Radio recently confirming commitments to the Wexford campus. If there is any update on that, I would be grateful if he would share that.

More generally on the role of the technological sector, and I am conscious a strategy statement from the Minister's Department is due quite soon, this sector will play a key role in how we deal with technology and the rapid pace of change of technology over the next decade. We will need to be constantly upskilling and reskilling all our citizens. That will require a clear commitment on capital investment in the sector but also on research capacity. Having dealt with issues related to the south east, I would like the Minister to comment on the overall sector with respect to both capital investment and research capacity.

I thank the Senator for his questions. First, on the regional matter, I reaffirm to the Senator and the committee my commitment and that of the Minister of State, Deputy Collins, and the Government to provide a site for, let us call it, the Wexford campus of the technological university for the south east, TUSE. I am limited in what I can say other than there is active engagement on it. When people in Wexford hear that, I am conscious they will have heard there has been active engagement for many years. Let me say there is active engagement that I expect to be brought to a fruitful conclusion shortly. There is an absolute concrete commitment, pardon the pun, from the Government to delivering a Wexford campus for the TUSE. I want to assure the Senator of that. I want to acknowledge at this committee the assistance of Wexford County Council, particularly its chief executive, in that regard and also the major work being done by IT Carlow. In terms of time, I will not go further than that, but I reiterate that commitment.

On the statement of strategy, it is timely the Senator referenced it as I signed off on it in recent days. I intend, subject to the agreement of the Cabinet secretariat, to bring it to the Cabinet next week and to publish it shortly thereafter. I would be delighted to engage with the Senator individually and with the committee on the statement of strategy, which sets out our plans for the Department for the next number of years. There are some quite exciting pillars in it on which I would like to build.

The Senator's third question on capital investments and research capacity are interlinked. My short answer is that the national development plan presents a major opportunity for the Government and the Taoiseach, who had the ambition to establish this Department, to firmly show their commitment to transforming the higher education sector through investment from a capital point of view in order to meet demographic needs and to transform infrastructure, including in the further education, innovation and science, FEIS, training, space and from a research point of view. We are not funding research adequately in this country. Considering the level of public spending on research compared to the European average, we are not where we need to be but we could close that gap and could make serious inroads into closing that gap in the lifetime of this Government. I am involved in very active discussions, as is the Minister of State, Deputy Collins, with the Taoiseach and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, on these matters in the context of the review of the national development plan.

I should also say we are developing our new research policy for the country. Obviously, we need funding and a policy. We will basically use this year to kick off a national conversation with civic society and stakeholders on research, in terms of what should Ireland be good at, what is Ireland good at and what are the priority areas for investment for the next number of years, and develop the successor strategy to Innovation 2020 during the course of this year.

I appreciate that but if the Minister's Department, and I have said this to him previously, becomes purely an administrative Department for higher and further education, I argue the Department in its concept will have failed. The challenge is with respect to how ambitious the statement of strategy will be, particularly in allowing the technological sector to be able to realise its ambition to meet some of these challenges. I hope the Minister might be able to indicate the scale of the capital investment or research investment we might see to meet some of those challenges.

I have an interest in this issue also but I want to be fair to all members.

I can come back in at the end if there is a chance.

I will let the Minister come back in when we have time near the end of our discussion.

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Harris, and the Minister of State, Deputy Collins. It is fantastic to get the update and I thank them for it. We note from the TURN report that digital literacy and skills are crucial, particularly in the regional areas we are looking at. I welcome the investment of more than €65 million. The student experience was spoken about, which is crucial for me. I would like to find out how we will ensure the balance of lecturers to students as we are reducing the number of students per lecturer in our colleges. The technological universities are focusing on the national framework of qualifications, NFQ, levels 6 to 10.

I was happy to hear about the international review of the Athlone Institute of Technology and Limerick Institute of Technology, AIT-LIT, consortium. What are the next steps? The Connacht Ulster Alliance was one of two mentioned as coming in shortly. Senator Cummins asked me to raise the TU in the south east and the importance of that. I suppose that application will be coming in soon.

Embedding with industry is crucial, especially in regional areas. I would like to ask about Science Foundation Ireland, SFI, and the Irish Research Council, IRC, two agencies under the remit of the Minister, Deputy Harris. How will they engage with technological universities? I refer to start-ups and SMEs, in particular. Does the Minister have foresight on how it will work? I refer to Enterprise Ireland and the research offices and commercialisation.

Last week, the Technological Higher Education Association, THEA, spoke to us about sustainability and the reference in the Cassells report to Exchequer and EU funding in relation to sustainability. Solidarity with the community is also key. It is something we want to see with our technological universities. The key part is human capital. How will we ensure the people we hire within these technological universities have dedicated research time?

Senator Dolan may have to recap on some of those questions. There are many areas to cover. I thank her for her interest and work in this area. The digital skills piece is key, and not just digital skills but literacy, numeracy and digital skills. Approximately 50% of adults lack digital skills. They will be locked out of society and our economies if we do not rectify this. We have tasked SOLAS with preparing Ireland's first adult literacy, numeracy and digital skills plan. It is due to come to me around Easter. I will publish it shortly thereafter. We are eager to engage with this committee on how we can make that document a living document that makes a meaningful difference in towns and villages across our country.

On the AIT-LIT development, I am pleased to say it submitted an application for designation on 20 November. I appointed an international advisory panel in December. The panel is currently undertaking an assessment and concluded its meetings on 10 February. It will then submit its report to the Higher Education Authority, HEA. I should hear back at the end of March. We will finalise the specific designation date depending on how that goes.

The Connacht Ulster Alliance has informed my Department that it is likely we will receive its application in March. We will then follow the same statutory process. My understanding on the south east technological university, TUSE, is that the consortium hopes to have the application to me around the end of April.

On Science Foundation Ireland, SFI, the Irish Research Council, IRC, and the higher education institutions, HEIs, and I ran out of time on Senator Byrne's question, now that 50% of our public research budget is under the remit of one Department, we are trying to avoid a situation where the SFI strategy over here, the IRC over there and the HEIs are doing their own thing. I assure Senators Dolan and Byrne that it is way more than being administrators. We have a chance to have one national research plan for Ireland. We have to involve civic society in that. It has been done in the Netherlands and other countries. Covid-19 provides us with that opportunity. People are excited about research and science. Perhaps it is a once in a generation opportunity, so we want to use this year. The Taoiseach will begin a national conversation shortly on research and innovation, involving our technological universities, higher education institutions, schools and broader civic society and, by the end of the year, we will have one national research plan in which all our agencies play a part and have clear responsibilities.

As was rightly said, it will also have to tackle the issue of human capital. I have already tried to make progress on that. We increased the stipends for researchers with the Irish Research Council as a first step. I also want to have discussions on career pathways. Not every researcher will work in academia forever. Many researchers will need to transition from academia into industry. I will be interested in engaging, and keen to continue to engage, with the committee on this.

Research and innovation is where the future of our economy's and society's well-being is at. This Department is asked many questions about other burning issues of the day and rightly so. However, the long-term strategic benefit of this Department must be the proper funding of higher education and getting research and innovation where it needs to be from a funding and policy point of view.

I refer to progression on the Connacht Ulster Alliance. Ensuring apprenticeships are a vital component was referred to in the speech. When will the apprenticeship strategy be developed or when will it be finished? Can the Minister, Deputy Harris, speak about that in connection with the technological universities?

We spoke last week about the ongoing funding needed. We want to avoid a situation we had with centres of excellence in terms of health delivery. That is not say that has not been done but we had the former Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, saying the UHG was not fit for purpose. Campuses need major investment. How can we make sure they are fit for purpose in terms of all they have promised in respect of regional development and individual fulfilment and attainment?

In the interest of time, I can send Deputy Conway-Walsh a more detailed note. My understanding is the Connacht Ulster Alliance has achieved the required technological university criteria. It has carried out its own independent audit. The CUA and the Teachers Union of Ireland, TUI, are in negotiations on a memorandum of understanding on a number of associated position papers. A ballot is to take place in that regard and it is likely to submit the application to me in March. We will then go through the normal statutory process of appointing an international independent panel, similar to what we have done for the others. I am aware of the Deputy's keen interest in this and I am happy to keep her up to date.

On the apprenticeship action plan, our intention is to go to the Government in March. The Minister of State, Deputy Collins, may wish to add to this. Much good work has been done on this. It is an exciting plan. We want to get to 10,000 registered apprentices every year by 2025, up from a current average of 6,000. It will involve the private sector doing more. It will also involve the public sector doing more. It cannot just lecture the private sector. Every Department, county council and State agency should be providing career opportunities for our young and not so young people. There is plenty of work to be done and there are plenty of opportunities for apprenticeships.

The national development plan review, which is likely to conclude in the autumn, will give us a chance to have our say on the additional capital we would like to see in the higher and further education sector. We are preparing our submission. I take the point that every technological university needs to be accompanied by a programme of investment. We have already shown good faith in that regard but are happy to continue to engage with the Deputy on that.

I will leave some time in case the Minister of State, Deputy Collins, wishes to add anything.

I will not take up any time. I do not have anything to add.

Deputy Conway-Walsh has one minute and 20 seconds left if she has anything to add.

I should have kept talking.

The Minister should have. As he is aware, the Connacht Ulster Alliance is enormously important, in particular in terms of the transatlantic cable, opportunities in respect of climate change and investment opportunities in the west which fit with the Atlantic economic corridor.

The Atlantic economic corridor has not been given the credence and opportunities we need to give it and that combined with proper investment and the technological university present significant opportunities. How are the link-up with Magee and the commitments made in New Decade, New Approach coming along?

I met with the management board in the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland and we discussed a number of issues, including Magee. We need concrete proposals in terms of what can be done but the Deputy is correct. The technological university for the north west has a significant opportunity to partner with institutions like Magee in the North. North-South relations will be key in higher education. I am very happy to have a direct session on that where we can talk about it at length.

I will not use my full allocation of time. The application for TU designation from Athlone Institute of Technology and Limerick Institute of Technology is very positive and will provide opportunities for people in apprenticeships and PhDs, which have been underserved, so I wholeheartedly welcome that. I know the Minister outlined that an assessment process is ongoing and a panel is in place for that but what further steps need to be taken? Is this process on track for September 2021 or will it be later?

My next question relates to apprenticeships. Are we on target annually for creating apprenticeships? This is something I support fully. We have lagged behind for too long when it comes to apprenticeships.

I know the Deputy has been in contact with me about this. There are huge opportunities for Athlone Institute of Technology and Limerick Institute of Technology - the university of the midlands, if we can call it that. There is already a footprint in Laois and I am very eager that we do more, particularly around training for Bord na Móna. I had some engagement last week on that at the Mount Lucas further education centre. The consortium is very much on track. It submitted the application in November. We appointed the international advisory panel in December. It concluded all its meetings with stakeholders on 10 February and will finalise its report. It will send it to the Higher Education Authority, which submits it along with the views of Quality and Qualifications Ireland to me, probably around the end of March. Under the law, I have 60 days to make a decision and inform the consortium of same. I hope the application will be successful, although I cannot jump the gun. I know the consortium is very eager to get it up and running as close to 1 September as possible. This is a very ambitious timeframe but let us see how close we can get to that. It is very much on track.

In respect of apprenticeship targets, being honest, it is a very fluid situation because of Covid. We saw a very significant drop-off earlier in the year. We brought in a financial incentive where an employer got €3,000 for any apprentice it hired. As a result, we have seen a significant spike in apprenticeships in the past year. I believe the figures will be on track this year. As we go through the year, there is potential to see increases in apprenticeships. I am very happy to send the committee a note with the latest figures.

Does the Minister of State have anything further to add about apprenticeships?

To add to the Minister's comments about apprenticeship numbers, it is a key goal of Government for us to foster and promote better gender balance in apprenticeships. We have been very cognisant of this in drafting the apprenticeship action plan. We have instructed the Department, SOLAS and the sections therein to pay particular attention to that. A number of the submissions we received as part of the public consultation to the apprenticeship action plan have reflected that poor gender balance issue, which we are keen to address.

I thank the Minister and Minister of State for being here. We had good presentations from various TUs throughout the country. They spoke repeatedly about funding, which is a legacy issue.

Every time the Minister crosses my path at this committee, we talk about literacy because all political parties in the Oireachtas have an interest in this issue. The Minister mentioned a new national literacy, numeracy and digital strategy that will come out at Easter. I spoke to him previously about the number of Departments that have sections that deal with literacy. I think the number might be nine. This needs to be challenged with regard to how effective we can be as a political entity and an Oireachtas in tackling literacy issues if it is so dispersed. There is a section in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and another in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. If we were to create a single entity and call it Literacy Ireland to do what the Minister and all of us want to achieve, that might be something he could consider. Perhaps he could speak about that in the time he has.

Will the Minister give the committee some reassurance that he is engaging proactively with the Minister for Education and the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, regarding the leaving certificate and post leaving certificate, the race for and plan for places, and how we can have a transition between this very troubling time for young people who are facing into the leaving certificate and the leaving certificate applied and the next stage in their lives, be it apprenticeships or further or third level education?

I am determined to tackle the funding issue. We are awaiting the economic evaluation and the input of the European Commission. We are likely to receive that in the second quarter of this year. No doubt we will be talking about it at great length. As an Oireachtas and Government, we really need to crack this and I am eager to work with the committee on that.

Regarding the adult literacy, numeracy and digital skills strategy, I acknowledge Deputy Ó Ríordáin's leadership on it. He has been talking to me about this for a long time. We got the public consultation results back. What was so concerning to see was that for all the people participating in the consultation, the biggest barrier to rectifying their literacy, numeracy or digital skills issue was a sense of shame and embarrassment. As I keep on saying, and I mean it, the shame is on us and not them. The shame is on us as a society that we have let these people down and have left people behind. I would love to come back to this committee when the plan is published. The big challenge is how we get the plan alive and turn it into something meaningful across our country. All Departments have been involved in drawing up the plan. I have been chairing an interdepartmental group - I hate that phrase - consisting of loads of Departments and agencies. I have an open mind on the one agency but perhaps we could have a look at that when the strategy is published.

With regard to the leaving certificate, I can provide the Deputy with some assurances. The previous budget provided funding for about 2,000 additional places. I have set up a working group in my Department to meet with the Irish Universities Association, the Technological Higher Education Association, which represents the institutes of technology, the CAO and others to identify what more we can do. Not all places are about money. Some places also have to have matching placements, so we will also engage with the Teaching Council of Ireland, the Department of Education and the Department of Health. There could be a once-in-a-generation opportunity here if we can find more placements as well as places to try to address some of the shortfalls in terms of the number of graduates we have for our public services. Two numbers I always look at with regard to the leaving certificate are 50 and 80. Every year, about 50% of students who pick a level 8 honours degree get their first choice on CAO offers day while around 80% get one of their top three choices. That is the metric I am trying to measure myself against this year. That metric held up last year and I am trying to make sure it holds up again this year so that a student this year has as much of a chance on average of getting his or her first choice or top three choices as students would have had in previous years.

I have a short amount of time and a number of questions so I will rattle through them as quickly as I can. Along with other Members of the Oireachtas in Waterford, last week I would have met a number of groups.

The groups included the Technological University for the South East Project and Waterford Chamber. The meeting was to discuss concerns around the TUSE project. There are three recurring concerns that each group discussed. I will ask the Minister to address them in turn, if I can. They are the location of the headquarters, the application of capital funding and the composition of the governing body of the eventual technological university of the south east.

I agree with the Minister that some of the local commentary on the headquarters issue has been unhelpful. It has helped to fuel anxiety. The Minister's statement as well as those of the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste have helped to allay some of those fears and they were welcome. It is my opinion that any objective assessment of the national planning framework or the regional spatial strategy would suggest that the headquarters be located in Waterford, but I want to afford the Minister an opportunity to lay out his thinking on the issue.

My next question is on capital funding. Despite accounting for almost 9% of the national population, the south-east region accounts for 5% of the Higher Education Authority spend or 3.2% of HEA research income. The capital side is even worse. Since 2004 the south east has accounted for only 1% of capital investment in the sector. The existing Waterford Institute of Technology main campus is at capacity and creaking at the seams. The built stock is depreciating. We urgently need to expand the footprint of the campus in Waterford. We have to acknowledge that a university of substance requires substantial investment if it is to be meaningful. I call on the Minister to briefly outline capital investment plans.

My last question is on the composition of the governing body. The 2018 Act stipulates a board of between 14 and 22 people. Can the Minister comment on the criteria that will be used to appoint the president? What criteria will be used to appoint the three external members appointed by the Minister? Can the Minister clarify which education and training boards will in fact be entitled to nominate to the new technological university board? I apologise to the Minister - I realise I have posed many questions in a short space of time.

My thanks to Deputy Ó Cathasaigh for the questions. I want to acknowledge that most of the representatives in Waterford, both Government and Opposition representatives, are not playing politics with this. They are trying to deliver a university. Some are choosing to do different things. That is their democratic right and we wish them well. We are going to deliver a technological university for the south east. There will be more students in Waterford. There will be more funding in Waterford. The footprint of the campus in Waterford will be larger.

Where is the headquarters? The honest-to-God answer to that question is that the headquarters will be decided by the governing body of the new technological university. There was misinformation, disinformation and downright nonsense put out around Kilkenny over and over again. No matter how many times I called it that, some people continued to go with it. No decision has been made and there is no proposal in respect of Kilkenny.

The first job in even getting a university is to get an application in. We need the application in quickly. We need it in by the end of April so that we can meet our date of 1 January 2022. That is when we are going to do this, despite the naysayers.

Capital funding is essential. I believe this is even more essential, frankly, than the headquarters decision. The Taoiseach and the Tánaiste have said they want to dramatically expand the physical footprint of what is now Waterford Institute of Technology and what will soon be the TUSE in Waterford and I have said it as well. That means development and growing the site. Deputy Ó Cathasaigh will know some of the sites in question and so do I, but let us not name them here. Processes need to be gone through, but I am 100% committed to that, as are those in my Department at official level and the whole of Government right up to the highest level of the Taoiseach.

I have a long note on the governing body, but I probably will not have time to read it out. I will send it to the committee. As Deputy Ó Cathasaigh rightly says, I will appoint the first governing body, which is made up of the chairperson, two external members and one member nominated by the ETBs in whose area the technological university is situated. Frankly, I will need to set out the criteria to do that. With the Munster Technological University I have publicly advertised for the post of chairperson. I imagine running a similar expression of interest process. Ultimately, the first governing authority board is chosen by me as Minister, but I will set out the criteria and the public process in that regard.

Deputy Ó Cathasaigh has 37 seconds.

My thanks to the Minister - I was not expecting to get time back - I am delighted to hear that. We have been experiencing brain drain in the south east for generations. Some 59% of our people leave the region for university. Our tax returns and any other metric that we care to mention, including pro rata GDP, show that these people are not coming back to us until their mid 40s. We are losing a whole generation. This TUSE project is absolutely essential. I want our young people to be educated in our region and to contribute to where they have grown up. The capital investment is welcome. I hope to work with the Minister on delivering this project for the south east.

I wish to concur. I am glad the Minister addressed the issue of the headquarters. People are trying to make capital gain out of where the headquarters will be. That is down to the new governing body, as the Minister has said. I wish to repeat that. Deputy Cullinane is next, followed by Deputy Jim O'Callaghan.

I am unsure if the Minister is following the south east around or if the south east is following the Minister around, but every time there is a big issue in the south east the Minister happens to be in the hot seat. Ironically, I have to point out, this university will most likely happen before the second catheterization laboratory is in place.

Be that as it may, I welcome some of the responses that the Minister gave to an Teachta Ó Cathasaigh and some of what was in the Minister's opening statement. I have had conversations with the Minister on this issue directly in the past. I am an enthusiastic supporter of a technological university for the south east. I want it to happen. I welcome the Minister's commitment to drive this over the line and make it happen as quickly as possible. It would be exciting for the south east if this were to happen on 1 January next year. My best wishes go to those involved in both institutes who are doing extraordinary work to get the application in place and to get the process over the line. I wish them the best of luck. Obviously, an extraordinary amount of work is to be done.

I wish to come back to some of the issues raised by an Teachta Ó Cathasaigh and seek some more clarity. I welcome the fact that the Minister said additional funding will be made available to increase the footprint of the campus in Waterford. I welcome that the Minister wants to use the TUSE model to expand third level education in Waterford and other areas of the south east. I am a supporter of the multi-campus solution. The Minister said that would be in the context of the national development plan. Will we see the colour of that money before the designation of the university? People would be comforted if they knew that were to be the case. I know that both institutes have made applications under the revised national development plan. We want to see, as soon as possible, the total quantum of money over a 20-year period that will be invested in what will be a new university from next year. What is the amount?

The second question relates to the headquarters. This is something that has come up. It came up strongly in the meetings that we held with the Waterford Chamber and a campaign group called the friends of the technological university of the south east. It is not an unimportant matter. I agree that funding is a big issue and I accept what the Minister is saying in respect of the government body ultimately making the decision. What criteria will the governing body be working to when it makes or assesses that decision? Would that decision have to be in line with the national planning framework? We know considerable work was done to ensure that we get regional development and the national planning framework right. Waterford city was to be seen as the catalyst for growth right across the region. I hope the Minister will bear with me in terms of how I am putting the question. Will the issue in respect of the headquarters be consistent with the national planning framework? I am putting that question constructively to the Minister.

I wish to ask about the composition of the board. My understanding is that a limited number of appointments are made first. Then those appointed have to oversee the election of other positions and there are further appointments. In the short time the Minister has, perhaps he can respond to that as well.

These two critical issues will give confidence to people in the south east and deal with some of the issues that the Minister raised. There are people who have a different opinion and believe Waterford can go it alone, but I do not believe that. I believe that the offer on the table is the offer we need to build on to get this over the line. Anything I can do to support that I certainly will do. Can the Minister address the concerns in respect of the headquarters and, crucially, the capital funding issue?

Deputy Cullinane used up four minutes so the Minister has one minute left to reply. I will be cutting the Minister off because we have several other people to come in.

I speak very fast. My thanks to Deputy Cullinane for being an enthusiastic supporter and for not playing politics with this. My thanks to the Deputy for being constructive in his engagement on this matter - I acknowledge that.

The Deputy is right on capital. The overall capital envelope will be decided in the national development plan. Let me say this without going too far: that is not delaying the discussions I want to have with Waterford Institute of Technology, as it now is, the local authority in Waterford and others to try to secure additional space. Those conversations are active, live and ongoing as we speak. The question of how advanced and how quickly we can get them remains to be seen.

We are very committed to trying to make progress in this regard to demonstrate good faith to the people of Waterford.

The location of the headquarters is a matter for the governing authority. The information issued by some people is factually incorrect. I will appoint the first board and I will be appointing sensible people to that board through a public process. They will be people with experience and expertise, who I am sure will take into consideration all the matters raised. The board will then repopulate itself with new members after two years, with a minimum of 14 and a maximum of 22. Up to eight of those members must be external and three are ministerial appointments. I will send the Deputy a detailed note on that aspect. I thank him for his support. We can do this and all that will stop us is ourselves. If we drive this project on, we can deliver this technological university on 1 January 2022.

Our next speaker is Deputy Jim O'Callaghan and he will be followed by Deputy Alan Farrell.

I thank the Minister and the Minister of State for coming before the committee. I reiterate what I said last week about technological universities having the potential to be a transformative development in Irish society in general and not just in Irish education. When we look at the 2011 national strategy for further education, the Technological Universities Act 2018 and the TURN report, it is evident that we are doing something transformative. That is why the new Department of the Minister and the Minister of State is so important.

The Minister will be aware that universities can have an enormous impact on their surrounding regions. Moving UCD to the new campus at Belfield many years ago had an astonishing impact not just on the south of Dublin but on the entire Dublin area. I have no doubt that technological universities can have such a transformative effect on the regions in which they are based.

Funding will be a big issue. The Government will be required to provide capital funding. Realistically, these technological universities are not going to succeed unless private investment can also be attracted. This is not an argument for the privatisation of education. We must ensure that industries, such as those involved in innovation in areas such as technology and pharmaceuticals, are linked to and provide funding for these technological universities. I ask the Minister to outline any existing plans on how to encourage the private sector to engage in a symbiotic relationship with the technological universities to ensure a secure source of funding comes from the private sector, as well as the State funding for the primary purpose of technological universities.

The decision regarding who will be on the board of a university that is just starting is very important. That selection has an enormous impact on whether a technological university will succeed or fail. We try to ensure now that every form of appointment to a board is done meticulously and we do not seem to favour any particular individual over another. I appeal to the Minister and the Minister of State, both of whom have good knowledge, awareness and judgment of who is effective on boards, to use their own judgment and to not just become a concierge for the Public Appointment Service, PAS, to just announce whomever has been recommended. We really need to go out and attract people and ask them to take on this exciting role in technological universities. By doing that, it will be possible to appeal to a broader range of people than by simply placing an advertisement in the newspapers. I hope the Minister and the Minister of State might have a minute or so to address those questions.

I thank the Deputy for his questions. The point he made about boards is interesting. We must be honest about this. People who serve on boards are undertaking public service and it is often hard to attract good people to these posts. That is no reflection on the people serving now. Fewer people are putting up their hands these days to serve on boards and those of us involved in politics must reflect on this issue.

I agree with the Deputy's point regarding the potential of the technological universities to transform regions. The idea is prevalent that all roads must lead to Dublin or other massive centres of population. We can change that notion. This will not only have an educational benefit but will also have broader planning, housing and societal benefits.

Turning to partnerships with industry, this aspect is one of the reasons the Taoiseach decided to establish this Department. It is intended to be an education Department, but also one which will interact with the areas of research, innovation and science. In the short time available, I point out that the regional skills forums are how we want to engage in this regard. Every region now has a regional skills forum in which the education partners and representatives from industry meet to decide what needs to be done for that region. Ireland is doing well in attracting foreign direct investment. We are not doing nearly as well in attracting the research and innovation functions of those companies and that is next big challenge for our economic well-being.

I thank the Minister.

Does Deputy O'Callaghan have any further questions?

That is fine. I call Deputy Alan Farrell, and he will be followed by Senator Pauline O'Reilly.

I thank Senator Dolan for helping me earlier because I had to take an important call. I apologise for having to step away just as the Minister of State finished his opening statement.

As a former student of Waterford Institute of Technology, I am pleased with the statements made on this matter in recent days by the Minister, his Department, the Tánaiste and the Taoiseach. Given what has been said throughout this meeting, there is no doubt that this technological university have a transformative effect on the region and that is not before time. As someone who once protested and shut down traffic on the bridge in Waterford city many years ago when we were fighting for a library, I am very pleased to see further capital investment in WIT. I hope that investment will continue in the new technological university, regardless of its name.

The Minister and the Minister of State will understand that most of the questions about the technological universities project have been asked and well answered. Therefore I will take this opportunity while they here to address issues such as apprenticeships, further education and training and the opportunities presented by those facets of the education system. The incentive scheme for apprenticeships was touched on by the Minister in his responses to previous questions. I am interested in hearing about future plans for this area and the physical infrastructure necessary to meet the ever-increasing demands of our student population. It will be understood that third level is not for everyone.

I would like more information concerning the university places provided by the Minister last year. He referred to that aspect in the context of trying to cater for demands which may well be met. The Minister mentioned that a report is due to be published on this area imminently, as early as next month. This will be an important consideration for those students who now have choices regarding their leaving certificate and what may flow from those choices in September.

I thank Deputy Farrell for his questions. I will begin by picking up on his last point. We must reform the CAO process. In saying that, I mean no disrespect to a body which does a very good job. It does not fall under the remit of my Department. It is unfair to young people that we narrow the conversation about their educational choices at such a young age. Those young people often only get to see the other choices available to them if they do not get the points required for a certain college course.

Far too often, the culture of conversations about the future of young people in Ireland focuses on what institutions they will be going to and not on they want to do with their life and the four or five ways of achieving that ambition. An apprenticeship is not a lesser way of studying; it is just a different way of studying. Doing a post-leaving certificate, PLC, course and then moving from that to UCD is not a lesser way of studying; it is just a different way of studying. I will come back to the committee on this issue shortly, but the Minister of State and I are working on plans to reform the process for school leavers. I think we can do something exciting in this space during the life of this Oireachtas and I am eager to work with people on this issue.

I am confident that we can provide extra college places this year. We have already allocated funding from the budget for approximately 2,000 extra places. We have set up a working group to see if we can do more. I reiterate that every year some students do not get their first choice and instead get their second or subsequent choice. This year, I am trying to maintain the ratios, so that at least on average a student will have as much of a chance as they would have had last year or in previous years.

The Minister of State and I are working hard on the matter of apprenticeships. The apprenticeship action plan will go before the Cabinet in March. It focuses on several areas, including what we can do to incentivise and support employers, what we can do to streamline the bureaucracy and procedures in place and what we can do to bring more apprenticeships on stream. Craft apprenticeships are important, but so are apprenticeships in a wider range of areas. We are also looking at what we can do to encourage gender diversity and inclusion.

I met the 1,000th female apprentice to be registered in Ireland, Zoe Fitzgerald, some weeks ago. I was delighted to meet her because she is a brilliant young woman embarking on an exciting career. The briefing note I got on that occasion stated that we had 26 female apprentices in 2015. I genuinely thought it was a typographical error. I thought at least one zero was missing, but the figure was correct. The number has now reached 1,000, but we have more work to do in this area.

We also need to invest more in the physical infrastructure in the area of further education and training, as the Deputy said. He has some exciting thoughts in that regard for the Fingal area.

When Covid allows us to move around, I will be happy to come out and visit the Deputy's constituency and see what we can do in that regard. We have put a lot of funding into providing extra training places to try to prepare for a life post Covid. There will be a life post Covid when people get back on their feet, but that does require infrastructure. We have seen significant increases in our capital budget and we are ambitious to put that money to good work.

I thank the Minister and the Minister of State for joining us again today. It is very much appreciated. Much of the conversation has been about the south east, which is correct given what is happening there at the moment. There is much concern in that regard and it has been outlined very well by the previous speakers. When we met with THEA and other representatives last week we heard that funding remains a concern. I know the Minister has addressed that to an extent and said that he will come forward with plans. One of the concerns that has been alluded to is that we need more private investment. We also have a concern about the legislative ability of technological universities and institutes of technology to borrow.

I am concerned about how we protect the fundamental core values of technological universities and institutes of technology given the value they have. It is not just about providing opportunities in terms of jobs; it is also about the well-being of particular sections of society and of regions. I think in particular of Donegal and what that does for North-South co-operation. How does the Minister want to address both of those issues to ensure we do not look back in five years or at the end of the Government's term and say that we got the funding but ask whether we changed the very nature and core values of technological universities and institutes of technology?

The Minister also referred to the milestone of reaching 1,000 female apprentices. It could seem like something of a celebration when one looks at the number of women in apprenticeships, but in the programme for Government the target is a bare minimum of 10,000 a year. We are well off where we need to be and that is also the case in terms of the greening of the economy. When the education and training boards, ETBs, were before the committee, they spoke about how they were introducing sustainability and climate into every course. I will be checking to see if that is the case. I asked the same question of THEA last week. The approach seems to be on an institution-by-institution basis. What will the Minister do to ensure that it is not just apprenticeships or courses that have green in their title that look at climate, but that every young person who goes through a third level institute has a foundation in climate and biodiversity because that will be needed regardless of where people end up?

I thank Senator O'Reilly for her question. She put it very well when she spoke about the core values of technological universities. The first part of my answer is that they need to be owned by the regions. I keep on having these conversations with the regions. The Government can set up a technological university in Dublin, but we then need to have the infrastructure in place for the regions to benefit. I will give an example of what I mean by that. We have been talking about the technological university in the south east for most of the meeting. We set up a regional enterprise engagement group, and we now have the chambers of commerce involved. People are talking about what they can do if there is a university in a region and how they can put it to work. They are asking what skills are needed, what jobs there will be in the future, what they want young people in Wexford, Waterford, Carlow or Kilkenny to be working on in the future, and how they can keep people in their communities. Equally, we need to go into schools and tell people that they can now get an education in County Wexford that can keep them living in their community and they do not have to head to the big city in Dublin or somewhere else. We have a transformation fund and we want to put that to work to try to excite the regions. Even in a small country like Ireland, every region is different in terms of its jobs and skills needs. If we get this right, when we look back at the end of our term in government or in a decade it will mean more young people being able to stay in their region. We know that the longer people stay in their region when they leave school, the more likely they are to buy a house, have a family and stay there. That will help repopulate and regenerate parts of the country.

I know Senator O'Reilly is passionate about the greening of the economy, as I am. The Department has a major role to play. We can have all of the ambition we want in the programme for Government, and it is good that we do, but if we are to turn that into practical results on the ground, as the Senator rightly said, we must use this sector. I will give a quick example of one action that we have taken. We set up four centres of excellence for retrofitting. We need an awful lot more as we have a hugely ambitious programme for the retrofitting of homes, but we do not have the people to carry it out at the moment. Those four centres of excellence will see a very significant increase in the number of people trained in retrofitting and providing good jobs but also good, green, sustainable jobs as well.

The Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, will make sure of this, but we will see positive discrimination through the capital plan and research funding in favour of projects that help to bring about climate action. One of the big costs we will face as a sector, which could be viewed more as an investment rather than a cost, is making all our buildings carbon-neutral. I was looking at the figures on that the other day. It is a massive project. I accept the challenge. I take Senator O’Reilly's point that we need to bed it into programmes for all students. I will follow that up with the HEA and I would be happy to correspond with her on it.

I welcome the Minister and the Minister of State. They are frequent visitors to the committee. I listened to the Minister's exchange earlier with Senator Byrne and I wish to get his thoughts on one or two points. We all acknowledge that there are deficiencies in terms of research funding in this country. The Minister acknowledged that we are currently well below the EU average. Does he favour a single research funding model for the higher education sector or would he envisage that we would have a number of research agencies, as is the case currently? I would welcome the Minister's thoughts in that regard in order to get clarity.

How does he envisage that the technological universities would collaborate with the traditional university sector? How will the Department foster such collaboration in the future? How does he intend to foster the development of relationships between the two types of university?

THEA was before the committee last week to discuss the sustainable funding of third level education. We all know it is an issue and we must have a mature and responsible debate about it. We need to grasp the nettle in that regard. What is the status of the commission's report? If the Minister wishes, he can elaborate on the three types of funding model that were proposed and his views on each of them.

I will try to go through the questions quickly, as I want to talk about the funding. We have three research funding agencies within the remit of my Department. We have Science Foundation Ireland, SFI, the Irish Research Council, IRC, and then we have each of the individual higher education institutions, HEIs, which I will group together as HEIs. The current thinking of the Department is that we will try to get our hands on the funding programme for research and then we will provide it to the agencies and individual institutions in line with fulfilling a commitment or aim in the national development plan. In other words, the Department would not be passive in this regard, but we would set out what we want to achieve as a Government and as a country regarding research, and the plan identifies which agency is the best to do it.

I have an open mind on creating an umbrella structure over that. The first challenge is to secure the funding in the national development plan. I am very hopeful on that. The Taoiseach is very supportive of it and he has done a significant amount of work on it. By the end of the year we want to put in place Ireland's new national research policy, which will clearly define what each agency does. The collaboration is largely through the regional skills forums and through the strategic dialogues with me and the Department. I note that in Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan's part of the world there is a really good example already in UCC, which has very much welcomed the MTU and is working with it. They see each other as collaborating and complementing each other rather than being competitors and providing the full spectrum.

On the funding model, I am going to share my thinking, although I cannot say it is Government thinking because I have not been to the Government on this yet. I do not favour student loans. I think they are a bad idea and have a detrimental effect on people from lower socio-economic backgrounds in terms of taking on debt and so forth. I expect to have the output of the economic evaluation around May. It is my preference that we would publish that and have an informed debate or discussion on it. There are basically three components to the proper funding of the higher education system. One is the core funding deficit. What is that level? I have an idea but I will wait for the report to tell me. The second bucket of funding is what is required to have an adequate, fit-for-purpose SUSI fund. The third element is what is required if we wish to reduce or abolish the registration fees.

If we take those three buckets or clusters of funding and add them up, that is the totality of funding required. I do not think it is impossible over the lifetime of the Government to really chip away at this and make very serious progress. Again, I know the Taoiseach is really committed to this and that is why we established a Department with a focus on these issues. I would expect that by the summer months we will be having some really interesting conversations about this but it must be about inclusion. It has to be about realism but it must also be about inclusion. Accessing an undergraduate degree, if that is what one wishes to do, should be a continuum of one's education in Ireland. Indeed, it has been for many people but there are still too many barriers to it. I will be back with the evidence and the economic input from the European Commission around May of this year.

Deputy Dillon is next.

I thank the Chairman and the committee secretariat for giving us the opportunity to discuss the technological universities at today's meeting. I thank the Minister and the Minister of State for all the work they are doing in the Department. I am deeply excited about what lies ahead, especially regarding the establishment of a technological university for the west and north west, ensuring that Castlebar becomes a university town. This is a key priority for me. These new technological universities will be transformative for the regions in the context of balanced regional development, investment and innovation.

My first question relates to the Connacht Ulster Alliance application. I listened attentively to what the Minister had to say about a March application. Can the Minister foresee any difficulties? Have learnings been identified on foot of the Dublin TU or Munster TU applications? If so, I ask him to provide more details on same. What type of skills audit or labour analysis has the Department done on the regions in order to ensure that the Department gets the course options right, especially for multi-campus sites like the Mayo campus for GMIT? There will be a school of nursing there but there is also an opportunity to ensure that we have business, life sciences and tourism courses to reflect both the labour market and the local industries in the area. In terms of capital investment, budget 2020 introduced a transformation fund of €90 million. How will that money be distributed throughout the multi-site campuses within the TU applications?

I thank Deputy Dillon for his questions and for joining me at the recent meeting with the president of GMIT and the vice president who is based at the Castlebar campus. Castlebar is going to become a university town and Mayo is going to have a university presence. This has the ability to be transformational for Mayo, Castlebar and the north west of our country. I am really excited about it. In many ways, Castlebar and Mayo are well placed geographically in what will be a very large geographic area being covered by the new Connacht-Ulster technological university. I am expecting the application in March although it is up to the consortium to decide when to submit it to me. The latest information I have is that the consortium intends to submit the application some time in March and we will act quickly on receipt of that.

In terms of the learnings, we have a pretty good template, not just in terms of the legislation which we obviously have to follow, but also on a practical level. The Department and the HEA are getting pretty used to receiving these applications, appointing panels, considering the information, QQI inputting and so forth so I would hope that the process will be smooth.

Deputy Dillon has spoken to me on numerous occasions about regional skills, how we decide what courses to run and where best to run them. I met IDA Ireland recently to discuss the need for a skills audit. What are the skills we need in Deputy Dillon's part of the country or in my part of the country now and over the next ten to 15 years? I am hoping that my Department and IDA Ireland can do some work on fleshing this out. Let us call it a national skills audit which will look at each of the regions. The Department is also looking at the skills infrastructure that we have in place. We currently have very good regional skills forums. The Minister of State and I met the north west regional skills forum in the last two weeks. We will be looking at how we can further strengthen and support those forums in their work.

On the issue of capital investment, my note says that the Connacht-Ulster consortium has received €5.9 million in Exchequer higher education landscape funding to assist it with TU development and a further €5.7 million last October under the new transformation fund. I will try to get a breakdown for the Deputy of how that funding has been expended.

We have two questions from Senator Flynn who is unable to be with us today for personal reasons. I will read out the questions and ask the Minister to provide replies to the committee secretariat.

Last week Senator Flynn mentioned the importance of access programmes which are the only route to third level education for many marginalised groups. The current crisis is adding to the extremely challenging obstacles faced by marginalised students. The digital divide, for example, means that many people in marginalised communities do not have adequate access to ICT and digital resources. In light of this, will there be any attempt by the Department to ensure that special provisions are made for access routes into the technological universities? Access routes should not be the only avenue for marginalised students to enter third level education. Senator Flynn mentioned at last week's meeting that apprenticeships and vocational education are also important education routes for marginalised students. She asks if the Department is developing a strategy to ensure the inclusion of these students in the expansion of the technological universities.

I ask that replies to Senator Flynn's questions be provided to the secretariat.

I am happy to do so.

Deputy Cathal Crowe is next.

I thank the Chairman for allowing me to participate even though I am not a member of this committee. I thank the Minister and Minister of State for the excellent work they are doing in running a very important Department. It is good that this Government recognises higher education in all of its forms. Heretofore, the Department of Education was all-encompassing but what this new Department is doing is quite unique.

Forgive me if I ask questions that have already been posed. I wish to ask about the proposal for a technological university involving the amalgamation of Limerick Institute of Technology and Athlone Institute of Technology which would, of course, have a campus in both Limerick and Athlone. However, of most interest to me and the people I represent is the campus in Ennis. We really look forward to a technological university in the mid-west, adding to what is already there with the University of Limerick and Mary Immaculate College, which will be of enormous benefit. Figures suggest that the economic benefit of this amalgamation and the higher status of education could be in the region of €420 million, supporting 800 jobs on top of the 1,200 already employed in those colleges. I ask the Minister to outline briefly the status of that project. Are we likely to see it completed this year?

I thank Deputy Crowe. He is entirely correct that Ennis is going to become a university town and that the opportunities this will provide for the region are very significant. To update the Deputy, Limerick Institute of Technology and Athlone Institute of Technology submitted their application in November. We appointed the independent international panel in December. The panel conducted its stakeholder engagement in a virtual, Covid-safe way and concluded that process earlier this month, on 10 February. The panel will now submit its report to the HEA. The HEA will get input from QQI and then that report, including QQI input, will be sent to me. The legislation provides me with 60 days in which to make a decision and notify the consortium. The TU, in a very ambitious way - I like ambition and am not knocking it - would like to see a designation date of 1 September 2021.

We will have to decide the designation date once we go through all these processes. We cannot take them for granted. A motion will have to come to this committee and be passed by the Dáil and the Seanad. We will have to find the most appropriate designation date that works for everybody. It seems on track to me and I am very excited about it.

I thank the Minister, and the Minister of State in particular, for driving this issue in the mid west. My final question relates to students who are not having the regular college experience. People's college years are their best years. I trained as a teacher and my three-week stint in the Gaeltacht was better than my honeymoon. I had a great three weeks down in Bally-----

I will not tell the Deputy's wife.

Do not worry, my wife is not listening. It was an incredible, fantastic three weeks. People come home with a skill set of Irish they would never acquire from a textbook but it is also about camaraderie and acquiring those skills as a teacher. Many students from Hibernia College have been in contact with us in recent weeks. This may not fall perfectly into the Minister's Department but he is responsible for higher education. It is morally wrong that they are being charged extortionate fees for a programme in which they will sit in front of a laptop. When I was in college we walked the highways and byways of the Gaeltacht. We had an immersive experience of the language and it enriched us as teachers. I ask the Minister and others to engage with Hibernia College in particular. There is a more substantive point to be made here. Students are grappling with their second semester of this academic year. I acknowledge that the Minister cannot intervene in all cases but colleges also need to reflect deeply on whether it is right to charge the same fees when the students do not have an on-campus experience. I would appreciate it if the Minister could comment on some of those issues.

I have yet to have a Gaeltacht experience myself but I know how hugely beneficial it has been for so many people and we need to continue to promote it. We are talking about people who require it as part of their qualification and studies. I have received much correspondence on this matter and I have sought advice from my officials. Somewhat surprisingly, I am told that it remains a matter for the Department of Education but I have been engaging with that Department on it. I am not trying to pass the buck. The State has a moral responsibility and obligation to its students, and to everybody, during the Covid crisis. I accept that and the State is doing quite a lot. There is a €163 million Covid package for higher education, including for laptops. The student assistance fund has been doubled and there is extra funding for mental health. We want to do more. We have set up a student well-being and engagement group, which is chaired by the president of the USI, to identify more issues on which we we can work together. I fully accept that we have a job of work to do but as the Deputy quite rightly hinted in his question, others have a role to play as well. I would encourage everybody to adopt a compassionate, commonsense view during what is a very difficult time for all our students due to Covid. We as a Government will be responding to all those representations and officials will revert to us shortly.

I thank the Minister. If a programme is being delivered online it should be costed as such. There are basic administration fees involved. Students are being charged fees that I would not have paid back in 2005 and my fees included accommodation, meals and an entertainment programme for the students every evening. It was a fabulous package back in the day. This is not comparable and nor should the price be comparable. I appreciate the Minister's time and his reply. I also thank the Chairman for facilitating me here today.

I have a few questions for the Minister and then we will have a few minutes for people to come back in. A significant capital investment will be required for the construction of the Wexford campus. I do not want the Minister to comment on that now but I wanted to bring it to his attention that this will be needed.

The conversation about the governing body and the new headquarters for the TUSE in the past number of weeks has annoyed me. I hope the Deputies from Waterford will not mind me saying this but a number of people in Waterford have been highlighting this issue. Nobody else in any of the other counties, that is, Wexford, Carlow and Kilkenny, is speaking about this but a number of people are doing a considerable amount of damage to the TUSE by talking about where the headquarters will be. No one has stated any reason it should not be in Waterford but that is up to the new governing body.

I thank the presidents of both institutions, Dr. Patricia Mulcahy and Professor Willie Donnelly, as well as the chairs of the governing body, Councillor Jim Moore from Wexford and John Moore from Carlow, for the fantastic work they are all doing. This matter has received some media attention in recent weeks and some staff in Waterford have been talking about the lack of a funding model. I know this is of concern to the Minister and that he wants to make sure significant investment goes into the TUSE. THEA specifically referred to the inability of the sector to access the same borrowing capability as other universities because of legislation that needs to be enacted to give the TUs this entitlement. Does the Minister intend to expedite this legislation as an urgent priority in order that there is a level playing field for the TUs and the universities? There has to be a level playing field. There has been competition between universities in the past number of years and decades and we would not like to see that happening with the technological universities.

There is a need to encourage the uptake of STEM subjects, by females in particular. How can the Department support the TUs in this endeavour? Does the Minister intend to engage with the Department of Education to ensure there is a more joined-up approach? Schools should encourage STEM talent, specifically the female cohort, from a young age in order that they can seamlessly move into third level STEM to see if it is an attractive field of study. There are excellent career opportunities and options there for people to go forward.

This committee intends to undertake a comprehensive body of work on leaving certificate reform later this year. At last week's meeting with THEA, its representatives expressed an interest in being involved in these discussions, which I welcome. One point raised by THEA was that any reforms should ensure students are not categorised or do not have avenues of study closed off early in life. What are the Minister's personal thoughts on this matter? Does he advocate for more continuous assessment, as distinct from the straight examination we currently have? How can reform ensure greater equality of opportunity? I would be interested in the Minister of State's views on this matter as well.

The Minister has done great work with the hospitality sector. There have been a number of announcements in the past few weeks because the sector is struggling. I would be the first to admit that. I heard some people in the hospitality sector on national radio this morning dismissing the work the Minister is doing, saying the sector does not need more training courses but more money from the Minister for Finance. Leaving that aside, I have spoken to the Minister personally about this issue. There is a great opportunity within the hospitality sector if we go back to the way it was with the certificates in Shannon College a number of years ago. I thank the Minister for his work, which is the beginning of greater work that he and his Department can do in the hospitality sector. It is going to be very important for the future of our economy when we recover post Covid. We have seen the opportunities within the hospitality sector and I thank the Minister for that work. I was very disappointed this morning by some people at a senior level in hospitality totally dismissing the work the Minister is doing and the opportunities he is offering the sector.

I thank the Chairman and echo his thanks to the presidents, chairs and members of the governing authority, as well as all the staff of Waterford IT and IT Carlow. While we are moving to a new landscape in the south east, that does not in any way take away from the incredible work both institutions have done. In many ways we are trying to build on that success for the new model. I am taken by the Chairman's comments about the speculation, idle comments or loose talk from people. Establishing a university involves a lot of hard work by many people and a huge number of people in the south east are working day and night to make this happen. This is what we have to do according to the law the Oireachtas passed, namely, the Technological Universities Act 2018, which sits on my desk. The amount of work we have to go through is very prescriptive and detailed. The first thing we need to do is get the application in. Then, subject to designation, we appoint a governing authority. We then appoint a president and the governing authority picks the headquarters. There is much granular, difficult work to do. It is not easy sometimes for a Government and, indeed, responsible Opposition Members, to compete with a quick sound bite.

However, if we do this right, we are going to deliver it and do so on time as well.

On the matter of borrowing, we are going to engage with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform on that. I take the point about the level playing field and have spoken to THEA about it as well.

The Chairman is entirely right about the STEM subjects, this must be integrated between my Department and the Department of Education and this is something I have discussed with the Minister, Deputy Foley. Some people from DCU were telling me they had done some research on this. When one goes into a school and asks if anyone in a class is interested in science, a few students will of course put up their hands, but if one asks if anyone in the class is interested in coming up with a vaccine or tackling climate action, then more hands go up. That is science; that is research. Therefore, some of this is about how we present the information to our kids at a very young age and indeed how we present the options from a career guidance point of view as well.

I have strong views on leaving certificate reform but I do not want to get into the Minister, Deputy Foley's space. There is an OECD report on it and we can do better as a country but there is no easy option. However, what I can do, working with the Minister of State, Deputy Collins, in the Department is look at how we bring about the CAO reform. This is the single portal I was talking about where young people can see all their options. Other aspects include ensuring we have a career guidance strategy in place and how we create an integrated tertiary system.

On the hospitality sector, I am very conscious of the stress and strain everyone in it is under. The courses we are providing were developed with the Irish Hotels Federation. It was not a case of a Minister or the Government saying "Here are some courses". We actually sat down with hotel owners and asked them what it would be useful for us to do for them so their businesses can prepare to reopen. Similarly, I had a great meeting with the Restaurants Association of Ireland, RAI, as did the Minister of State, Deputy Collins, on how we can help it remove some blockages in the area of apprenticeships, particularly for chefs. Our Department wants to be an enabler. It wants to help enable businesses to get back on their feet post Covid and help enable employees use this time to acquire any skills they may require. We want to help anyone who, during the pandemic, has been wondering what is next for them. That is the job of work we must do and we will do it in collaboration with business owners and the people on the ground, because they know what they need much better than I or any other Minister does.

I really encourage the Minister to continue his work with the hotel and catering sector. Some of the top hotels around the world have at their helm Irish people who trained here in Ireland. There are huge opportunities here for people to go abroad, broaden their views and come back to Ireland with that experience. People may differ from me on this even within the hospitality sector but a majority agree with me that there is huge scope here, especially in areas like hotel management, catering, hospitality, cheffing and everything like that. I hope what the Minister offered to the Irish Hotels Federation is only the start of a large suite of packages he and his Department can provide over the next few years.

Senator Byrne and Deputy Ó Cathasaigh want to come in. I will take both their questions together.

The views the Minister expressed on Waterford, Carlow and Wexford co-operating to provide a university for the south east are very welcome. It is important to acknowledge that, as the Chairman said, the overwhelming majority of people in government and opposition have been co-operating toward this big overall aim. I am concerned that some media outlets in the south east have been facilitating the naysayers a little bit too much.

I echo the remarks by the Chairman, who is a County Wexford colleague, about the hospitality sector. I do have a concern around the Erasmus programme, however. A significant number of students in the hotel and catering area used to go on Erasmus to Britain and particularly to hotels in London. That is a problem as the UK has left the programme. I encourage the Minister to look at say, the Turing scheme, to develop closer links.

Coming back to my earlier question on the scale of the challenge we are going to face and the key role of the technological sector, especially the pace of technological change we are going to face over the next decade, we are going to see increased automation in a whole variety of fields. One of the challenges we are seeing at the moment with Ulster Bank is because of the shift to digital banking. There is a crucial role here around dealing with all of that technological change and upskilling and reskilling all our citizens and it is that leadership role which the Minister's Department must take. My question earlier was around the scale of the capital and research investment which will be necessary to ensure we are equipped for that. What is happening in banking at the moment is in many ways only the canary in the mine. We are going to see huge technological change and this sector must play a crucial role in that. That is why I am concerned about not just the scale of the investment but also that there is an understanding at the heart of Government about how important it is.

I must cut the Senator off because Deputy Ó Cathasaigh wants to come in and I want to give the Minister an opportunity to reply.

I am going to give the Minister and Minister of State a break from the south east for a moment. Members from the south east have managed to give more than enough airtime to that particular matter today. I add my voice to the tréimshe Gaeltachta issue, although I hasten to add my honeymoon was better than my tréimshe Gaeltachta, just in case my wife is listening.

On the issue of the roll-out of retrofits, and I acknowledge Waterford and Wexford Education and Training Board led the way in piloting that, in conjunction with that, and I have mentioned this before to the Minister of State, Deputy Collins, I see a need for heritage building skills apprenticeships, especially if we meaningfully engage with the town centres first agenda and drive it forward. We might then be looking not just at retrofitting our building stock from the 1950s or 1970s but also the renovation of our older town centre stock, much of which requires that heritage skills aspect. Therefore, as well as retrofit being a huge growth area in terms of skills and the type of work that is going to become available, I see a huge opportunity for those heritage building skills to become very important as we begin to retrofit and renovate within our town centres.

Do Senators Dolan, Pauline O'Reilly or Deputy Alan Farrell have any further questions before I wrap up?

I just want to thank everyone again as it has been really informative. It is great news about the submissions going in from AIT and LIT. I realise the Minister of State, Deputy Collins, was previously a lecturer in LIT, so it is great to see it coming along.

The Minister and Minister of State may now wrap up.

I should have acknowledged earlier that the Minister of State, being from the mid-west, has taken a very keen interest in AIT and LIT. It is great to have that local knowledge of the region in our Department.

I thank Senator Byrne for his comment on the hospitality sector. We will collaborate very closely with this sector which has been so badly hit. I could not agree with him more on developing closer links with the UK. We have had the Scottish-Irish review across Government and I have had a meeting with the deputy First Minister of Scotland to talk about how we can advance some of those areas in the research space but also in the potential scholarship type space. They are not in Erasmus but there may be opportunities to do things bilaterally. I had a meeting with the UK universities minister as well and there will also be comments shortly on Wales and Ireland working together, so I will keep in touch with the Senator on that.

I really take the point on the scale of ambition. It needs to be massive, both from a policy point of view and a funding one. One of the things I and the Minister of State did was convene a group of IBEC, AmChams, the British-Irish Chamber of Commerce and others to ensure there is a shared understanding of the scale of this. I mention also ISME and Chambers Ireland. Whether one is a small business in a provincial town or a massive multinational, we as a Government want to be ready for the changes which are coming. It is good from a business point of view but most importantly it is good from a well-being point of view for our people.

I am really excited by the idea of a skills audit being carried out by IDA Ireland, working closely with my Department. The IDA will bring a business knowledge and we will bring an education knowledge. I think that could work. We are currently reviewing the skills infrastructure, including the National Skills Council and the regional skills fora to see what is working and what is not. We have on official working really intensively on that as well. We also have a very ambitious national development plan alongside our research and innovation policy work which will continue this year. The statement of strategy will probably be published next week as well.

Deputy Ó Cathasaigh's question is probably most appropriate for the Minister of State.

I just have a couple of observations. On the roll-out of the TUs across the country, there will be Limerick-Athlone and we have spoken at length about the south east.

As the Minister, Deputy Harris, stated, the whole principle is to have a network and a multi-campus approach whereby every county within the region subsets has a presence. It is not helpful to have a bun fight going on in one part of the country with regard to where the corporate headquarters will be located. There will be a headquarters in every part of the region being served by virtue of the presence to which I have referred. That is what is important. The location in which the president in question sits and has his or her corporate team is actually irrelevant. It is about the students, engagement with the region and embedding it into the region. When I am asked in Limerick and elsewhere in the mid west about where the headquarters for the Limerick-Athlone project will be located, I say that is a matter exactly for the incoming president and the board. It is really a secondary matter.

On the issue of hospitality and tourism, as members are aware, the Minister, Deputy Harris, and I launched an initiative last week. It was made possible by virtue of collaboration with the industry representative organisations, but also the regional skills forums. The people working and engaging in hospitality and tourism have told us that they wish to skill up their critical and key employees in order to retain them in their employment in the sector such that when the country eventually opens up again and the economy gets running, those people will be there and will not have to be replaced by others who would have to be retrained or upskilled into those particular situations.

The Chairman asked about leaving certificate reform. It is my personal view that there has to be reform of the leaving certificate. All present have been through the leaving certificate process in their lives and education. Having so much riding on one written exam is very onerous. It can be a daunting task for many people. The whole country will, ultimately, move away from that process. The Minister, Deputy Harris, referred to reform of the CAO. We have not mentioned the reform of SUSI, which is a project that is also being undertaken by the Department. We can revert to the committee in that regard at another time.

I thank the Minister, Deputy Harris, and the Minister of State, Deputy Collins, and their officials for appearing virtually before the committee. As a result of Covid, there is a strict two-hour time limit, for which I apologise. I thank the Minister for accommodating us. I know he is under pressure with the Cabinet and so on. More importantly, I thank members for their forbearance in terms of the meeting being delayed until 4.20 p.m. We had a very good discussion which has followed on from our discussion last week with the Technological Higher Education Association. It was very informative and beneficial for members and the public. The meeting stands adjourned until 1 p.m. on Tuesday, 2 March 2021, at which stage we will virtually meet the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, and the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, in public session.

The joint committee adjourned at 6.03 p.m. until 1 p.m. on Tuesday, 2 March 2021.