Skip to main content
Normal View

Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science debate -
Tuesday, 1 Mar 2022

Future Funding of Higher Education: Discussion (Resumed)

On behalf of the committee, I welcome Dr. Anna Murphy, senior strategic advisor of Quality and Qualifications Ireland; Mr. Tim Conlon, head of policy and strategic planning at the Higher Education Authority; Mr. Andrew Brownlee, the chief executive officer of SOLAS; and Dr. Mary-Liz Trant, interim director of the national apprenticeship office. The witnesses are here today to discuss the further funding of higher education. The format of the meeting is that I will invite Dr. Murphy to make a brief opening statement, followed by Mr. Conlon, Mr. Brownlee and Dr. Trant. This will be followed by questions from members of the committee and there will be an eight-minute slot for each member's questions and the witnesses' replies.

I ask our guests to watch the timers under the television screens in the room. As participants are probably aware, the committee will publish the opening statements to the Oireachtas website following the meeting.

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

I also remind witnesses of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make that him or her identifiable, or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of a person. Therefore, if their statements are defamatory in relation to an identifiable person or entity, I will direct witnesses to discontinue their remarks and it is imperative that they comply with any such direction.

I now ask the witnesses to make their opening statements. They have five minutes each. Dr. Murphy is first. She will be followed by Mr. Conlon, Mr. Brownlee and Dr. Trant.

Dr. Anna Murphy

I thank the committee for inviting Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, to this meeting. I will focus on the key points made in our submission and I will finish by asking you to consider our recommendation that all higher education institutions be adequately funded for academic integrity.

The overall level of funding for higher education impacts quality and course provision. This committee heard representatives of the higher education institutions call for increased, sustainable, funding for higher education. This call is supported by evidence from our work on quality assurance.

Going back to 2016, reports referred to in our written submission have shown that funding impacts the quality of teaching and learning, student supports and research. They show a need for sustained investment in the research capacity of the technological sector. They show that the design of the funding model must support the diverse missions of the technological universities, as set out in legislation. The funding model also needs to support policy choices about pathways and progression for learners.

Dedicated funding drives development and change. Springboard and the human capital initiative are effective ways to address specific needs and new developments, like new skills, the recognition of prior learning and microcredentials. These funding schemes are also a means to implement Government policy.

The quality assurance system maintains, enhances and evidences quality. The system, operated by all higher education institutions and QQI, provides evidence of, and support to the quality of teaching and learning, assessment, research and support services. It supports the new apprenticeships and the establishment of technological universities. In 2020, it enabled the rapid shift to online and blended learning in the Covid pandemic. It provided evidence of the impact of that shift on quality. The first available reports for 2020 give us overall confidence that the reputation of higher education was protected in the pandemic. We will know more when reports and evaluations for 2021 are completed.

We need to fund academic integrity. I will finish by drawing your attention to the need, right now, to fund all higher education institutions to support and maintain academic integrity. Academic integrity concerns a commitment to, and demonstration of, honest and moral behaviour in an academic setting. It is under threat from a multi-billion-dollar, sophisticated, global industry of cheating. A sustained, multi-pronged, collaborative effort is needed to support academic integrity, tackle cheating and the global cheating industry so that we maintain the quality, integrity and reputation of Irish higher education. This concerns all of us and, in the first instance, all staff and learners in our higher education institutions. Dedicated funding can underpin the significant steps we have all taken in Ireland in three main areas. The first is legislation to enable QQI prosecute contract cheating or essay mills; second, collaboration between higher education staff, students and stakeholders in the National Academic Integrity Network which raises awareness, develops guidelines and resources and provides training; and third, engagement with international experts and agencies to inform, alert and detect cheating and to promote academic integrity.

Now, it is our higher education institutions that need funding to implement guidelines, support all staff and students, gather data and provide dedicated resources, training and research in areas such as detection and artificial intelligence. QQI strongly recommends that this be provided through the recurrent grant model and targeted initiatives in order that all institutions are supported to embed academic integrity as a core part of their institutional culture. By working together, we uphold the reputation of our higher education system.

Mr. Tim Conlon

My colleagues and I are pleased to assist the committee in its consideration of topics referred to in its letter of 14 February last. On the matter of the future funding model for higher education, the HEA review of the allocation model for funding higher education institutions carried out in 2017 noted how higher education plays a critical role in the development of our people, providing a skilled workforce to meet economic and societal needs, including the need to support lifelong learning for all.

The importance of investing in higher education has been recognised by successive Governments, leading to higher levels of participation and broadening of access over recent decades. This includes the provision of additional places in recent years to meet increasing demand. The 2017 HEA report recognised that Ireland's higher education needs are met through a diverse range of regionally-dispersed institutions, of different scale and with different specialisations.

Since then, higher education has continued to change nationally and internationally and modes of delivery are being refreshed and renewed to offer greater and more flexible approaches to meet the needs of a broad cohort of learners. As a result, the funding approach will also need to change.

The development of technological universities has seen the emergence of five new institutions of significant scale with regional, national and international relevance. The objectives of technological sector reform are to raise standards, deliver better-quality outcomes for students and other stakeholders and enhance the performance of the sector. The reform of the sector will increase the scale, critical mass and quality of the institutions, allowing them to respond regionally and compete on the world stage with other comparable higher education institutions internationally.

The Technological Universities Act 2018 has set out an ambitious agenda for these new institutions. This is intended to improve research capacity resulting in a deepening of research-led teaching and learning excellence, including at apprenticeship and post-graduate levels. Research fields will be extended and greater capacity will be developed within the technological universities to serve national and regional strategic objectives, including linkages with the European research area and European higher education area.

Apprenticeship provision is an integral component of the activities of the higher education sector, with more than 60% of the off-the-job training in craft apprenticeship and 65% of consortia-led apprenticeship programmes provided by the higher education sector. The technological university legislation specifically references apprenticeship provision as a core element of the future development strategy of technological universities.

Meanwhile, within the traditional university sector, as one might call it, apprenticeship provision is also becoming a mainstream activity as universities such as the University of Limerick lead out as education partners in several consortia-led apprenticeships. Apprenticeship programmes are available in the higher education sector from levels 6 to 10 on the national framework of qualifications, NFQ.

The sector has developed significant progress pathways for apprenticeship graduates within its traditional course offerings. In terms of access initiatives, the national access to apprenticeship initiative developed by Technology University Dublin, which will also be rolled out by Technological University of the Shannon: Midlands Midwest, supports the transition of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds into an apprenticeship scheme. This programme has been hugely successful with many participants from the initiative progressing to full apprenticeships.

Since 2017, recurrent funding provided for apprenticeship provision in the higher education sector has totalled €216 million and a total of €35.5 million has been provided in capital investment to cater for the expansion of apprenticeship capacity in the higher education sector. The the Higher Education Authority, HEA, is also deeply committed to the national priority to achieve equity of access to higher education.

The establishment of the programme for access to higher education, PATH, is an investment of more than €40 million over six to seven years and funds projects across three PATH strands. The enhancement of equity of access statistics through the collection of deprivation index scores for the student population, now into its third year of data collection, provides a more detailed and accurate insight into the socioeconomic profile of our student population than was ever previously possible.

The strengthening of universal design for learning, UDL, in higher education that supports more inclusive learning environments and practices for all students has been achieved through measures including strategic funding for projects in UDL. A range of Covid-19 interventions designed to support vulnerable and disadvantaged students impacted by the pandemic have been put in place.

Through the lifetime of the national access plan, there has been progress on participation rates of students from cohorts that have experienced low participation rates, most notably students with disabilities. However, for students who are members of the Irish Traveller community, socio-economically disadvantaged or mature students, the data show that a significant challenge remains in increasing participation rates.

I know I am tight on time so I will finish up there. Mental health and well-being supports have been a priority for the HEA and the Department in recent years, particularly as a response to the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.

I look forward to the questions of members and the discussion on these matters.

Mr. Andrew Brownlee

On behalf of SOLAS, I thank the Chairman and members for the opportunity to discuss issues relating to the future funding model for higher education, including the development of apprenticeships. SOLAS has responsibility for funding, planning and co-ordinating further education and training, FET. Through the education and training boards and other providers, the FET system offers access to a wide range of learning opportunities and supports in every corner of the country, regardless of learners' background or formal education level, and a learning pathway to take them as far as they want to go. It currently serves a base of approximately 200,000 unique learners every year. SOLAS also has statutory responsibility for oversight of the national apprenticeship system and serves as the co-ordinating provider for craft apprenticeship in Ireland. We are currently working with the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science and the HEA to establish a jointly managed national apprenticeship office.

The issue of future funding for higher education cannot be separated from that of support for FET and apprenticeship. The current situation is that more than 70% of school leavers choose to enter higher education directly as their future pathway. Although the high levels of higher education participation serve as an attribute that enhances Ireland’s global reputation, there is now a case for a more balanced tertiary system with an enhanced role for further education and apprenticeships, in line with most other international systems.

Transforming Learning, the future FET strategy, sets out a clear roadmap for development of the system and centres on the three core pillars of building skills, fostering inclusion and creating pathways. In addition, the strategy includes a core group of enabling themes to support and underpin the vision and strategic targets for the future FET agenda. The strategy has the capacity to enhance and transform what is already an exciting system, supporting 200,000 learners on an annual basis, primarily through the network of 16 education and training boards, ETBs. Within the pathways pillar, it seeks to increase the contribution of FET by building greater links between school and FET, within FET, and from FET to higher education.

One of the big early priorities was to make school leavers more aware of further education and apprenticeship options alongside higher education choices at CAO decision time. This year, for the first time, a link on the CAO website allowed school leavers to explore all the potential pathways. To date, approximately 35,000 people linked to either apprenticeship or further education and training information as a result of visiting the CAO website and we hope that will lead to increased demand for these options.

It should not be seen as an either-or scenario when it comes to FET and higher education as there is potential to build on strong links between the two systems to establish more consistent pathways and explore co-development and co-delivery of programmes by FET and higher education providers. Indeed, there is evidence that, for a cohort of school leavers, having the foundation of a FET experience prior to entering higher education significantly increases their chances of completing their degree.

In apprenticeship, there have been encouraging signs in 2021 of increased interest in the 25 craft and 37 newer apprenticeship opportunities. There were more than 8,600 new registrations during the year, with an overall apprenticeship population of 24,212 in December, far outstripping pre-pandemic levels in 2019. That is an encouraging sign in the context of seeking to meet the national apprenticeship action plan target of 10,000 per annum in 2022.

Of course, the pandemic had a significant impact on craft apprenticeship provision, with higher education and FET facilities closed for nine of the first 15 months and the system only able to return to full capacity from September 2021.

This created a significant waiting list at the end of the summer but an emergency action plan has been put in place, with 7,000 apprentices already back in off-the-job training and the vast majority scheduled to be back by the end of this year. The emergency plan included a blended delivery model which allowed us to move to three intakes per year rather than two for phase 2 apprentices, capital investment and more instructors to expand capacity across phases 2, 4 and 6 and a fast-tracking of the phase 7 qualification period. Continuing to expand capacity remains a critical priority for SOLAS, not only to ensure that new registrants are able to access off-the-job training in a timely manner, but also to ensure that capacity exists to meet the significant national challenges around Housing for All and climate action.

It is also important that funding remains available across both FET and higher education, HE, to develop new ideas for apprenticeships. While the apprenticeship system has developed significantly since the first action plan was launched, there is scope for more higher education institutions, HEIs, to become involved in development of programmes. There also still exists major untapped potential in developing further apprenticeship programmes across FET.

I hope this provides a brief overview of the issues with regard to the higher education funding model that are relevant to further education and training and apprenticeships. I thank the committee for its time and I look forward to further discussion on this matter.

Dr. Mary-Liz Trant

I thank the joint committee for the opportunity to contribute to the round-table discussion on the future funding of higher education and the key areas for consideration in this regard. Committee members will be aware of the decision by the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation, and Science, Deputy Harris, to establish a new national apprenticeship office to drive implementation of the Action Plan for Apprenticeship 2021-2025. It is my privilege to have been appointed interim director of the new office.

Higher education plays an extremely important role in our national apprenticeship system. The majority of our 62 national programmes include training that is provided by technological universities, institutes of technology, the University of Limerick and privately-run or not-for-profit higher education colleges, including the National College of Ireland and Griffith College. This training is provided in close partnership with education and training boards and other further education providers. Funding of €200 million has been allocated by Government this year to support apprenticeship provision, with a substantial portion of this coming from the National Training Fund. The fund, made up of a levy of PRSI contributions by employers, supports ongoing investment in and expansion of the apprenticeship system. This funding is extremely important as we work to clear the backlog of apprentices delayed in their training during 2020 and 2021 by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Apprenticeship is a dual model that combines learning in the workplace, at least 50% on-the-job, and learning delivered by an education and training provider. Over 8,300 employers who currently use apprenticeship as a talent pipeline place a high value on the learning their apprentices complete in the education environment. It is intended that the number of employers using apprenticeship will grow significantly over the next four years, with 10,000 apprentice registrations per annum by 2025, requiring a significant expansion of the system.

Last year, the Minister, Deputy Harris, provided an additional €10 million of investment in apprenticeship facilities across higher education, with a matching additional €10 million for further education. To fulfil the ambition and the targets that are set out in the action plan, investment will need to continue this year and in subsequent years as Ireland works to deliver on major targets, including the building of 300,000 new homes by 2030 and the massive programme to retrofit our current housing stock. Technological universities and other higher education institutions have a vital role to play in supporting apprenticeship expansion and in ensuring that apprentices receive high-quality training that equips them for their careers and their contribution to the prosperity and growth of our country.

In addition to construction, electrical and engineering-related apprenticeships, we now have a vibrant suite of apprenticeship programmes in areas that include tech, biopharma, financial services, healthcare, hospitality and manufacturing. Apprentices can achieve qualifications at degree level, masters level and to date, we have one PhD apprenticeship for principal engineers.

The national apprenticeship system provides multiple lifelong learning opportunities where people can complete advanced apprenticeships as part of their career progression or as a means of changing career.

We expect to have up to 70 national programmes available by the end of this year. There is a strong pipeline of industry engagement and of new apprenticeships coming down the line. Higher education institutions are actively responding to this demand and are planning how a much larger and more mainstream apprenticeship offering forms part of their overall activities, alongside academic provision, research and service to the community.

Just like all other learning opportunities, access, diversity and inclusion are extremely important within the national apprenticeship system. The Action Plan for Apprenticeship includes a significant number of actions that will accelerate the number of women apprentices, those with disabilities and other under-represented groups. A dedicated access committee is being established to advise the apprenticeship office in this work. A first step is already under way with introduction of a gender-based bursary for eligible apprenticeship employers.

Progress has also been made in promoting positive mental health within the apprenticeship community. The R U OK? campaign encourages apprentices, teachers and employers to have healthy conversations about mental health. Resources are available on, including great short videos made by apprentices talking about their own experiences and encouraging each other to ask on a regular basis, "Are you okay?" A second phase of the campaign is getting under way shortly, with great support from the higher education community.

I look forward to the discussion at today’s round-table session. I thank the committee for the opportunity to talk about apprenticeship within a progressive and vibrant tertiary education system that we are working on for now and into the future. Go raibh maith agaibh go léir.

Our first question is from Senator O'Loughlin, who is swapping places with Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan. Senator O'Loughlin will be followed by Deputy Conway-Walsh.

I thank all the witnesses for their very interesting contributions. It is great to see a lot of positive work in the areas that they represent.

Listening to Dr. Murphy, I was interested in, and it was probably the first time that I looked at it in detail, the whole area of academic integrity, which, obviously, is crucially important to our reputation both nationally and internationally. It was very interesting to hear that.

In terms of Mr. Conlon’s presentation, it is absolutely great to see our five technological universities up and running. We are looking forward, as a committee, to having the opportunity to engage further around the opportunities and challenges that are there. I note that the University of Limerick, UL, is leading the way in terms of several consortia-led apprenticeships, which is top class, as well as the fact that there are significant progression pathways developed. I am particularly interested in the next national access plan, which will be starting this year. Perhaps he could enlighten us in terms of what will differentiate the previous plan with this. In terms of equity of access to those from marginalised backgrounds and those with disabilities, we have discussed here before the lack of progression, sometimes, for people with disabilities into further education. He might also address the digital divide, which became very obvious during Covid and the proposals he would make around that.

It is good to see Mr. Brownlee again at this committee. He mentioned how 35,000 people had visited the CAO link for apprenticeships. This could be really changing things because many previous concerns were just about that parity of esteem and this is addressing it. It is great. When will he be in a position to quantify how that has turned into practical measures? It would be really good for the committee to get an update at that point in time. I completely agree with him that funding for further education and apprenticeships cannot be separated from higher education funding. They all absolutely have to be the same.

Dr. Trant talked about the strong pipeline available and the earn-as-you-learn model.

I really do believe that the message is getting out. Even in the past 12 months, there has been a lot more about that. We are talking about 8,300 employers and how that must grow to a minimum of 10,000. I acknowledge and accept that there is good engagement with the business community. What are the challenges from the business community for making this participation greater? What do we need to put in place, not just from the education committee but also at a broader level?

Student loans were mentioned in the Cassells report. What are the witnesses' views on the different models that were presented at that? The witnesses might also mention the need to develop accommodation on campus. This is very important for all.

Mr. Tim Conlon

I thank the Senator for the very useful points around the development of a national access plan. That process is in train with the Minister and his Department, and the Higher Education Authority has consulted on that.

On the emerging issues, some of these are cross-cutting. The Senator mentioned the technological universities, for example, and the role they will play and so on. Of the cross-cutting issues that are emerging, financial supports for students is one of the key areas for us. Priority groups are also an issue for us, including the Traveller and the Roma communities, and the additional supports that could be put in place to assist people into and through higher education and all through their lives. Another emerging issue is that of specific pathways for special cohorts, for example for children in care, the kinds of supports that would be put in place for an all-of-life approach into further education and higher education, and how those joined-up pathways would exist through us for those cohorts.

The Senator mentioned the part-time and flexible learning experience through the pandemic. Much of the system had to pivot to online provision. We are trying to leverage the learning from that by seeing how we teach and engage with students in a different way in an online environment, what we learned from that, and how can we use that knowledge to develop new programmes or parts of programmes. Not all kinds of provision are ideal for online provision but we can do more to reach out to students in disadvantaged communities, for example. There is also the digital divide, which the Senator has also mentioned and which we are looking at. We are trying to see how we can use the digital experience of a pandemic to reach out to students in communities, to reach out to students in disadvantaged cohorts, and to create pathways and opportunities. It is a very opportune time to have this conversation.

We have not been excellent in Ireland at part-time and flexible learning and we do not have a strong tradition in that. The 9 a.m to 5 p.m, three to four-year degree programme is more common and we need to do more in developing flexible pathways. Now it is a very good opportunity to do that and to look at that. We are currently developing a programme to invest in the technological universities in particular and to have them look at what they can do now in a new way and what will mark them out as different to the traditional institutions. The flexible learning and universal design for living principles are the sort of things that those institutions can take on as a particular mission. I hope this is helpful and I thank the Senator for her very helpful questions.

Mr. Andrew Brownlee

I totally agree that it is a potential game changer. We were constantly hearing up to now that the further education options and apprenticeship options are really only an afterthought if the student does not get the points to get into higher education. This is the first step in trying to make sure that everyone has all of the choices on the table.

On the question of whether we know if it works, at the moment we know it has created a level of interest in those different options. The CAO change of mind process has only just closed and we will not know the full impact until August or September when the leaving certificate results are out and people finalise their choices. We should have a good gauge in April or May. We are already hearing anecdotally from the FET colleges that more and more people are coming to them. People are entitled to apply for our courses at the moment but there is no incentive to do so because the higher education process is still working through. We will be able to give the committee an update in April or May on the sense of demand for FET courses, and then a full review of the impact when choices are confirmed in September and October. A big part of this is changing the culture around and helping people to make smarter choices.

It should not be about capping numbers in higher education or fixing numbers in further education and training. There is real potential just to get people better information. There is also real potential to look at further education and training pathways into higher education in order that a person could start off in further education and progress into higher education degree programmes. We are working on this with QQI and with the HEA.

Dr. Mary-Liz Trant

On the CAO matter, another indication of the impact is we have had a lot of contact from guidance counsellors and regional skills representatives to say that there are now more and more young people looking for apprenticeship options, and that the challenge is finding employers. We have this matching challenge all the time. We have a portal where employers can advertise vacancies but the numbers that use this are relatively small. We are looking at how on a county or regional basis we can actually start to put out better information in order that young people in school can genuinely see and find an apprenticeship opportunity. This is being actively worked on at the moment.

With regard to what is in place for the business community and the 8,300 employers already using apprenticeships, a lot of those employers are really positive and talk about their experiences in a very positive way. This has been a big plank of Generation Apprenticeship and in the promotion of apprenticeship opportunities. The employer grant was introduced this year for the newer apprenticeships with €2,000 per apprentice per year. This will be a big help for all of those apprenticeships where there is not a training allowance.

Another big thing we have started to work on is to make the whole system more accessible for employers. There is a portal, a technology solution for employers, where they can go on and see how many apprentices they have and how they are getting on. We really need to build on that and make it much more streamlined and more technology-based in how employers engage with the system.

There is a lot of work to be done and there is a big agenda of work now through the new office. The plan is that over the next 12 to 18 months we will see big steps forward to support that much greater number of employers who are choosing apprenticeships for recruitment of their talent.

Dr. Anna Murphy

On academic integrity and dealing with contract cheating, we would welcome an opportunity to work with the committee to engage with some of the digital platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Google, WhatsApp and Instagram in identifying, advertising, and pulling down or taking down service providers who advertise or provide contract cheating services. We really need collaboration and working together to get some movement on that.

On the apprenticeships, QQI is undertaking an important review of the 37 consortia-led apprenticeships. This will show some learning and we can use that to inform the next stage and to improve and work more efficiently in designing and rolling out apprenticeships and, importantly, in making sure that they are sustainable over the period.

We are also working on improving Qualifax, which is an important information platform on options for students, and particularly now in the further education space, apprenticeships and higher education.

We continue to work with SOLAS and others on improving the pathways and on leveraging the qualification system that provides transparency, information and support to everybody who wants to progress into and onwards in higher education and further education.

Will Dr. Trant indicate how many apprenticeship places are available through local authorities across the State?

Dr. Mary-Liz Trant

I do not have the answer on that for the Deputy but I can come back to her on it. There has been a big drive to work on that and to increase that. There is a target of 750 public service apprenticeships over the period of the plan, which would include the local authorities.

I want the local authority figures because local authorities present opportunities for craft apprenticeships in particular. Every time I ask this question of a local authority, I do not get an answer. We need to examine the baseline in this regard because local authorities have a responsibility to not just talk the talk, but also walk the walk. Having skilled staff in their own areas is in their interests. It would be good if the National Apprenticeship Planning Office gave us those figures. It does not matter if they are zero – well, it does – but at least we would know what we were working towards and we could set proper targets. I am interested in local authorities specifically, but the others are important as well.

It was good to see Mr. Brownlee on Achill Island yesterday. It was a great launch of the strategic framework for outdoor education and training centres. There are significant opportunities in this regard. The strategy needs funding to go with it, but Mr. Brownlee could sense the energy and dedication that will make it a success. As I told him yesterday, it has the potential to be an all-island approach that would attract students from the North to outdoor education. The benefits of that would not just be academic, in that there would also be an exchange of experiences and understanding as part of the peace and reconciliation process that we are trying to achieve across the island. I congratulate everyone involved in the strategy.

Mr. Conlon stated that reform of the technological sector would allow technological universities "to respond regionally and compete on the world stage" and that the 2018 Act set out an ambitious agenda for the new institutions to improve their research capacity, resulting in a deepening of research-led teaching and learning excellence. During the seven years of Horizon 2020, the higher education sector in this State won €679 million in research funding. The technological sector got approximately 8% of that, or €54 million. The three institutions that make up the soon-to-be-formed Atlantic technological university managed to get €3 million of that, or less than 0.5% of the total. By comparison, Teagasc, as a research body, drew down approximately six times as much. How do we design a funding model that positively discriminates towards the regions that are not at the same level of research and development? The overall available funding is split 60-40 between the traditional universities and the technological sector. How do we create a unitary system whereby the technological sector, and the higher education sector more widely, receive a greater share? Are there other approaches that we need to consider?

Regarding the regional disparity, last week's Central Statistics Office figures tell us that the gap is now three times wider than it was ten years ago. We are all failing in addressing that disparity. According to the economist, Mr. John Daly, capital funding for higher education in the north west amounted to €316 per undergraduate enrolled between 2010 and 2020 while €372 was the national figure. We can see from this why the gap is increasing. We have a responsibility in this regard. What are Mr. Conlon's thoughts on it?

Mr. Tim Conlon

That was an excellent question. The Deputy has identified part of the issue that we are trying to address through technological universities; it is an issue of capacity and scale. Let us take capital investment as an example. It is difficult for a small institution to manage a broad capital portfolio, in that it is difficult to put the applications together and compete for funding. The same goes for research. Horizon Europe is a competitive programme. The institutions that comprise technological universities were formerly teaching and learning institutions. They came out of a post-secondary approach to creating opportunities in regions. We are trying to supersize them in terms of the contribution they can make to regions. This is highlighted in the national development plan where there are ambitious targets for the western seaboard. The new Atlantic technological university will play an important part in that.

We are looking at investing in building capacity in research supports.

If there is an excellent academic who is capable of running a research project but is not able to get through the red tape of Horizon Europe, he or she will need support within the institution. We are building capacity around grant writing, application processes and engagement with enterprise. We support people in those endeavours. We have excellent people in those institutions, are bringing them together in larger institutions and will support them in their endeavours.

Does the HEA have the resources to support them?

Mr. Tim Conlon

We are almost there. We are working closely with our parent Department and, for example, the regional assemblies in the context of European regional development funding. We believe we can do something significant in that respect, working with Science Foundation Ireland, Enterprise Ireland and other various actors to see what bits each of us will contribute to enabling that research culture and research engagement.

There are people who want to participate and apply for and secure research funding. They just do not have the capacity because of teaching loads and the structure of the system, which we are working to change.

I have a question for SOLAS. Mr. Brownlee stated that further education offers people learning pathways to take them as far as they want to go. We need to place greater emphasis and attention on the work being done in this regard and on the potential of further education. I am not convinced that the pathways are adequately in place, though. I always refer to how fewer than 5% of the approximately 4,000 students who study pre-nursing go on to study degree-level nursing. The Minister often refers to the pre-law situation. I have asked for figures on the progression of pre-law students to degree level but I have been told that the data are not collected. Many pre-law and pre-nursing students pursue further education just for the education they receive there and not as pathways to a university or an institute of technology. I imagine that they do not have that desire. However, I am concerned about the pathways. Nursing is the stark example. Why do so few pre-nursing students progress?

Mr. Andrew Brownlee

Currently, 5,000 people with a post-leaving certificate, PLC, qualification go on to higher education degree courses. It is equivalent to a fifth of the intake of the technological higher education sector. It is all ad hoc, though, which answers the Deputy's question in part.

I am out of time, but I wish to ask a question. How important is it that we make the pathways a key component of an agreed future funding model?

Mr. Andrew Brownlee

From the perspective of SOLAS and pathways, it is critical. We need to incentivise the links and build on the 5,000 people. It depends on institution-to-institution arrangements. We need to mainstream those and have universal agreements in areas like nursing, technology and even teacher education. We will then see the numbers increasing and pathways forming.

There is also an opportunity for co-development and co-delivery of degree programmes. There is a great example of this in Cavan and Monaghan with the Technological University of the Shannon: Midlands Midwest, which was Athlone IT, and IT Sligo, which is itself changing into a technological university. There is also the great example of the Ballyfermot College of Further Education working with DCU, where the former starts the delivery of the degree programme locally and students then progress into the university setting. There is the potential to develop this area. In Scotland, it is a tried and tested route. We are not talking about an either-or situation, but about a pathway through the system.

Mr. Andrew Brownlee

We may be able to get the Deputy figures on pre-law progression. We have good statistics from two or three years ago. They may be two or three years out of date now, but we would definitely consider them theme by theme. We will revert to the Deputy.

It would be useful to the committee to have them as well. We look forward to visiting all of the higher education institutes. It is only by going – I went to Ballyfermot – that we can get a real feel for the work being done there in changing people's lives even more so than is the case at higher education level.

I thank Mr. Brownlee. I have other questions, but perhaps someone else wishes to contribute.

I agree with the Deputy. We visited the technological universities in Limerick and Cork.

It was fantastic to have the opportunity to visit and see exactly what happens. We learned a huge amount from that visit. We can have as many witnesses in here as possible but it is important to actually visit these places and see what happens on the ground, as well as the challenges that those involved face.

Apprentices and people engaging in further education are future front-line workers who will deal with a range of challenges facing our society. They will be on the front line against climate change in the context of the retrofitting programme and in combating biodiversity loss. They will clearly and obviously be needed to tackle the housing crisis in a meaningful way. There is a huge dearth of skilled people in that area. The care economy is also expanding due to the clear demographic trends towards older people. Valuing them and providing for them as part of the caring economy will be a huge part of our future economy. The appearance of further education courses on the CAO course list is extremely important for a number of reasons. It is about ease of access but it also goes some way towards dispelling what a previous contributor called a cultural handbrake against apprenticeships and exploding any remaining prejudices about this pathway into education.

I visited the Waterford training centre two weeks in order to look at its retrofitting courses. We need to raise awareness about micro-credentials. Someone who is a plasterer already can be in and out of Waterford training centre and accredited for retrofitting in three days. It is similar for window fitters. Two of the days can be done online with only one day in the centre. People can then be fully accredited to move into this new and rapidly expanding area of the economy. We have to scale that as quickly as we possibly can. It is critically important.

Professor Vincent Cunnane has said that technological universities are a long ladder of opportunity. I welcome that. Someone could begin at apprenticeship level but the sky is the limit. People do not have to stop once they come out of their apprenticeship. There is a pathway that will lead them all the way to level 10 if they wish to get there.

We are here to discuss future funding and I am not sure I have come away with a clear picture of the challenges that face the sector from a future funding point of view. I ask the witnesses to dig down into that in a more detailed and granular way. What an apprenticeship is has changed and been blended so much that the answers will be different for a sparks, a brickie or a plasterer, and there will be a different range of answers for someone in the caring economy or the tech industry. What cost are we talking about for the student or apprentice walking in the door? Is it a set level of costs over the couple of years that they are training? What is the cost to employers? If an employer decides to take an apprentice on, what will it cost them? What is the resulting cost to the State? Do we need to expand that? That is what we are here to discuss. Are there other funding sources?

Deputy Conway-Walsh referred to European funding. Are there other funding sources that we need to put into the mix? If we are discussing funding coming in, are we discussing the funding coming out? Is it properly spread between the likes of SOLAS and the technological universities? Universities are now moving into this area. ETBs will also want a slice of that money. I ask the witnesses to identify the problems that are there. Do we have enough money coming in? What are the costs? Is there a cost barrier for somebody from a lower socioeconomic background to stepping onto the first rung of this long ladder of education or opportunity? Are we getting enough money in the door? Are there issues around distributing and dispersing that money across the range of ETBs, technological universities, SOLAS, etc.? These are very broad questions but they are aimed at helping me better understand funding in this area.

Mr. Tim Conlon

I will offer a broad answer. My colleagues' responses will probably be more specialised. We can always do more with more. We have significant resources coming into higher education and further education. The system is being asked to do more for non-traditional entrants. These could be students with specific learning needs, for example, who need supports. That has to be resourced in some way. When the resource coming in is finite, it needs to be stretched and you have to stop doing one thing to do something else. As both a State and a nation, we have to decide what we want. Do we want a highly skilled population? Do we want to provide that to people in all regions? There is a cost to providing it in geographically dispersed locations and it is very complex.

We do very well and we get excellent outcomes from the investment we make in our education system. We can see that in the statistics. The higher a person's level of educational attainment, the more likely they are to be in a job and stay in a job through an economic cycle and so on. We have all the evidence for that. We can see that the more people are educated, the better their life outcomes are with regard to income and employment, but also health outcomes and all those other things. If people are locked out of that and cannot get into further and higher education, they will not have that opportunity in their lives. They will not have those better health outcomes. There is a deep issue we have to think about there regarding equality.

Providing that access will require resourcing for the individual because people could have caring responsibilities or part-time jobs, and they need to keep the car on the road for driving to college. Hopefully, we can do more about distance learning and it will save them money in that regard. All of those complex things need to be considered and those pieces do not necessarily work well together. Our system serves us very well. It serves a very broad range of students from all kinds of backgrounds, but we are going to have to do more from an equality perspective because the nature of our economy is more high skills based. The Deputy mentioned retrofitting and the green agenda. There are challenges with regard to the sustainable development goals. There is a lot of work to be done and we need to empower the system to respond to that. I used the word "empower" not "fund", but it probably does mean funding. That is what we have to think about.

Mr. Andrew Brownlee

The point about micro-credentials is important. We have agreed with QQI a fast-track approach to making sure courses with micro-credentials can be developed quickly. One of the courses we are bringing to its panel next month is a level 4 course in sustainability. The idea is that this can be rolled out across all out FET courses so every FET learner is equipped with environmental awareness, green skills and an understanding of sustainability. We are telling them to be the kinds of agents of change we need for tomorrow. That is the big ambition in our FET strategy and in the programme for Government. It is difficult for me to comment on funding because I work for a State agency. Part of the reason for this new Department is that we are trying to think about funding for a tertiary level. The thinking behind the new national apprenticeship office is not just about funding FET over here and higher education over there but about making it much more aligned and joined up for apprenticeships. Dedicated funding to support those pathways between further education and higher education is critical to moving things forward.

Dr. Mary-Liz Trant

On the costs and challenges for the expansion of apprenticeships, a study was done in 2019 with support from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform on the cost of training for the State. It came out at in and around €7,000 per apprentice per year. That was the average. That kind of analysis must be done again because we have more programmes coming on stream. There is a commitment in the action plan to look at that in detail. The other big cost for apprenticeships is capital expansion. We know we need to do a huge amount of that. I stated earlier that €20 million was allocated last year on top of the existing commitment to invest capital. We are just getting detailed figures now on what is needed for Housing for All and the retrofitting scheme. Given the scale of the challenge, it is our sense that we are going to need at least that much, if not more again, this year and for the next three to four years. That would go towards building more workshops and training spaces, and doing it in a very innovative way to accommodate many more apprentices coming through.

In higher education, apprentices pay a contribution and that issue is raised in the context of costs for apprentices. Apprenticeships are done on an earn-as-you-learn basis, so all apprentices get a salary or a training allowance on the craft apprenticeships. We hear feedback about how it can be difficult, particularly for older apprentices, to survive and manage on an apprenticeship salary, especially in the early years. This is something we will do work on, including through a wide survey of apprentices we will carry out later this year, to get that feedback in a much more systematic way. We will then examine what is possible and what will be needed if we want to deliver on that commitment to additional numbers.

We have some information, but we need to gather much more. The targets are there, as is the commitment by the Government to achieve them, and increased funding will be needed to match that. Part of our job will be to identify what that is and to set it out, and then to go about securing it for the coming years.

I thank our guests for attending. It has been very educational for me to listen to their contributions. Throughout the time we have been holding these meetings, I have spoken about the value of further education, which can be a lifeline for people on the fringes of society such as me, who was born and reared on a halting site. When I was younger, university was not something I had the financial resources to consider, and furthermore, I did not qualify for it. My lifeline was to attend Ballyfermot College of Further Education to study for a QQI qualification in pre-nursing and caring for people with special needs, which I loved. It was not even about the qualifications I got at the end of it, but rather about learning, being in a college setting and wondering what attending university would be like. I genuinely believe in the value of further education. While universities are really important and it almost the norm nowadays to have a level 8 qualification, in the same way that years ago it was the norm to have the leaving certificate, further education can be a lifeline for many disadvantaged communities, people from ethnic-minority groups and people who feel third level education is not for them but who want to get a feel for it.

Our guests mentioned the pathway programmes. Will they speak to those programmes and to how their success is expanding access to higher education? They went on to mention funding to support participation among Travellers and Roma students. Will they elaborate on that funding? It is my understanding there have not been any separate targeted supports for people from minority groups, but it is important we support all ethnic-minority groups to have access to college. Our guests spoke about the value of apprenticeships for workers and it was good to hear them address that issue.

Mr. Tim Conlon

I thank the Senator for the questions. It is good to have this conversation. I mentioned the Irish Traveller community in my opening comments but did not go into detail because I was over time. There have been marginal improvements in Irish Traveller numbers in higher education. For example, there were 33 new entrants in the year 2020-21 versus 26 in 2012-13, but that was nonetheless very slight incremental growth. Currently, approximately 119 students who are enrolled in higher education institutions identify their background as that of Irish Traveller, compared with 78 about ten years ago.

As for specific programmes, under PATH 1, teacher educators in Mary Immaculate College, MIC, are working to involve Irish Traveller students in teacher education. One of the most important aspects will relate to role models, because they are the people who, for example, encourage students to Ballyfermot College of Further Education to take the first step and look at opportunities ahead, and that is not reflected in classrooms. In the teacher education space, therefore, we are making significant inroads such that people in schools will be able to see themselves reflected in those who teach them and engage with them.

Thirteen Irish Traveller students are registered on the programme and, of those, quite a number are progressing, although not all, given it is challenging to get through education, but we are making some inroads. We are trying to continue and extend the programme and to raise awareness among Traveller students, specifically the 15-to-18-year-old cohort, whom we are trying to engage in the programme. We are seeking also to assist graduates coming out of the programme to progress in their education or into teaching careers. Furthermore, under the third strand, we are examining the recruitment of some students onto PhD programmes to look at the impact of the programme and how we can do more with it. We are using education to educate ourselves, as was said, and trying to learn from the experience.

Moreover, the national access plan is in development and there are a number of clusters nationally that have been identified, although we are trying to engage in regions because, again, it is about engaging with the community and the people who are best placed to influence and support students in their engagement, so those programmes are ongoing. The Irish Traveller and Roma communities will be specific targets in the next access, because they need to be. We are making progress and we need to continue it.

What about other ethnic minorities, such as migrants and refugees? It is so important this lifeline be given to everyone in Ireland.

Mr. Tim Conlon

I fully agree. We have done broader work on race equality, for example, in higher education. We have published a report on that and are developing an action plan to examine how intersectionality impacts on people. They may have all kinds of issues that cause them problems in their progression, so we are examining how all those issues intersect and how we can do better in respect of an action plan on developing race equality. In the context specifically of marginalised groups, a number of institutions are engaging with direct provision, for example, and looking at how they can help.

I am minded to mention one other issue, which relates to Deputy Ó Cathasaigh's point about carers. There is a very interesting programme in Institute of Technology, IT, Carlow that is examining people who are in caring arrangements for someone at home. IT Carlow's programme can reach out to them and give them education in that environment. It helps not only with their caring but also with their own personal development, keeping them relevant and engaged. There are many programmes like that which individual institutions are operating and engaging in. I could pull together some further briefing on that for the Senator, with reference to broader marginalised groups.

I would greatly appreciate that. Migrants Rights Centre Ireland is also carrying out some great work with carers who are migrants. It would be brilliant to learn more about what Mr. Conlon mentioned.

Mr. Andrew Brownlee

To build on that, although I do not have the exact numbers so I will need to revert to the committee, I think about 700 or 800 participants in further education come from the Traveller and Roma communities. There are targeted initiatives through our community education programme and we funded a number of projects under the mitigating against educational disadvantage fund last year. That reinforces the Senator's point that there is interest in that regard. One of our main worries is that we have lost approximately 10% to 15% of learners in that target group and in some of the other marginalised target groups because of the pandemic, given we had to go online, which just does not suit people who have wider support needs and require that peer network. It is something we are actively trying to address by getting numbers back up to pre-pandemic levels, and it is a priority.

There was mention of QQI qualifications in the context of academic integrity.

In regard to academic integrity, the proposal around funding to help prevent contract cheating, which is a phrase I had not heard before, what type of measures can be taken that would attract such funding?

Dr. Anna Murphy

The measures will vary from institution to institution. What will be important and useful is to have a contact person or unit within each higher education institution that can provide support to staff and learners, provide resources, can help detect cheating and start conversations where they may not have already started. Because this cheating is not just about individuals seeking to buy essays or to have their assignments done for them by somebody else, but often students are targeted by these contract cheating providers. They are following WhatsApp and messages in Facebook where somebody might say he or she is struggling or has a deadline he or she cannot meet, and he or she will get an unsolicited message saying we can help you, we are here, we provide these services. Students who are under pressure, perhaps international students who do not have supports here and may not have sufficient preparedness to engage in assessment, or who come from a different culture of higher education may be more exposed and more vulnerable to this. This is what the international evidence is suggesting to us. The other thing we can do is provide funding for research to enable the development of programmes to detect academic cheating, to develop the artificial intelligence to combat it and to be aware of the way in which artificial intelligence is now being used to support plagiarism. There is a whole range of things.

I often wonder whether it is possible to stay ahead of the technology, considering the availability of resources of information in so many different forms and sources. It is easy to see how people would try to get around the system and have access to ideas and thoughts. By the same token, it is also possible to search and try to detect where words, phrases, sentences or whole paragraphs or even whole essays have been located that are not original but are plagiarised. Is it Dr. Murphy's view that this is a much greater problem than ever before? Is there a struggle to get to grips with it?

Dr. Anna Murphy

It is a big problem. We do not have the data for the extent of it in Ireland. That is an important issue we need to address. Recent international evidence has shown, for example in Australia, that it is much more prevalent that had been thought. Guy Curtis who has been an expert in this field for 20 years or more said in November that his estimate is that 8% to 10% of Australian students engage in contract cheating. It is quite significant. There is no reason to believe that things are any different here. We need to know more. There are encouraging signs. We have legislation here to enable us to prosecute contract cheating. We have a very good academic integrity network of people in higher education from across students, staff, professional bodies and so on in both public and private. There is a good deal of global engagement and good research and co-operation between the relevant agencies and between experts to look at all the elements. We need the multipronged approach of raising awareness, being on top of it as the Senator says, to know what is happening and to design solutions. Artificial intelligence is part of the problem but it is also part of the solution. We really just have to keep on top of it as best we can.

I thank Dr. Murphy for her answer. Not to make light of a serious subject but in my college debating days, I was fond of putting around the line that 70% of student debaters make up their own statistics on the spot. It was not an original line of mine, it was going around at the time.

Mr. Tom Conlon

I do not intend to make up mine on the spot but in terms of the Senator's question, we had an interesting conversation with Deputy Conway-Walsh earlier on about the research space and about building capacity of technological universities.

In the research area, the validity and integrity of scientific results is extremely important, as are aspects such as export control legislation, dual use items, not allowing military research to go to rogue states and so on. There is a whole infrastructure in place in institutions to support researchers and make sure that happens. That is not as well developed in the academic integrity space at teaching and learning at undergraduate level. As my colleague Dr. Murphy said the insidious nature of this is the chilling part of it. I work a good deal in student well-being and student mental health. You take the opportunity of using the thing that is said to you for your exam and then it is found out. People should know better but they do not always know better. Sometimes they are in very complicated situations. A lack of academic integrity in an exam situation or around a submission of a paper situation has a devastating impact on students too. They should not do it but when they do it is devastating in terms of the outcome. I just wanted to make that point.

Is what is allowed built in across college courses now? I refer to the ground rules, various things around note-taking and research; is it mandatory or universal that students encounter the concept of plagiarism, the rules around plagiarism, obviously the ban on it, and various ways it can happen, the consequences both immediate and wider social and community consequences? There are major potential knock-on consequences. This is not just about getting a better mark or a mark you do not deserve in an exam. It could be about a bridge falling, in the fullness of time.

Mr. Tom Conlon

Dr. Murphy will comment on that.

Dr. Anna Murphy

There is increased awareness. However, what there may not be as much awareness of is the blackmail that is involved in it and as Mr. Conlon said the invidious nature of the contract cheating services, the way in which they trap, chase and encourage cheating. That is the sort of thing we need to tackle. There is scope to work with the digital platforms to remove the advertising, to take down the services that are provided where they are clearly causing offence.

Mr. Tom Conlon

In terms of institutions and programmes certainly it is a part of the onboarding of students in terms of the standards and quality required of them. They are educated in it but it does not stop the temptation, in particular where it is being driven home to people. As Dr. Murphy said we do not yet have good evidence in Ireland but we can see internationally that it is becoming a growing problem, in particular in English speaking countries.

To correct something that Senator Mullen said about fictional research, it is very important that you have a very thick book on hand. One of my tutors always said there is less chance that they will look through a thick book than a very thin one.

I thank all the witnesses. I have no question for Dr. Murphy. My question was actually asked. As far as I can discern we do not have statistics as to the scale of this in Ireland, except to say that it is very likely similar to other developed countries but it is fascinating. It is something we need to return to and take action on. It has certainly given me significant insight. It has very serious consequences for the student and the system as a whole. The integrity of the system is important and it is worth noting the work that QQI does. Organisations are some of the unsung heroes of the system. It has to stand up to rigours. I take the opportunity to acknowledge that.

I have a question for Mr. Conlon on deprivation index scores. That allows us a more detailed and accurate insight into the socio-economic profile. There has been some progress, albeit from a low base from 2015 in terms of access for students from the Travelling community. Have we been meeting those targets? No doubt there is also a target this year for students from a Traveller background of 60, up from 48 in 2019. Are we likely to reach that target? Some of the discussion is about the rebalancing of the tertiary sector. I am conscious that in rebalancing it needs to stay proportionate. Obviously we need to be careful in terms of how we continue to ensure that our high standards at higher education remain very high as well.

How do we strike that balance? As has been already acknowledged, it is about the integration of apprenticeships and higher education and a flow-through in that regard.

I have many questions with regard to apprenticeships, all of which I will not have time to pose today. The cultural piece is enormous. I am not sure if Mr. Brownlee or Dr. Trant have seen the video that was doing the rounds recently on social media, in particular around Cork. It is a video of a man, Ken O'Connell, who is an electrician, pleading, as he does every year, with parents of leaving certificate students who are thinking of doing an apprenticeship to not discourage their children from doing an apprenticeship. There is an enormous snobbery out there that we have to deal with. That is one of the biggest pieces of work. We need to transform the perception of apprenticeships. They are diverse and they have the potential to be even more diverse. It is perhaps an issue at home more so than at school. It is an issue in some of the schools but others are very progressive in that regard. To be fair to the Minister, he has the right attitude in regard to this area. It is for all of us to continue to push apprenticeships.

Aside from the cultural stuff, there are structural issues as well that we need to deal with. I have previously raised with the witnesses that there are trades and apprenticeships in respect of which getting instructors is very challenging. In the areas of plumbing, electrical and instrumentation it is very difficult for the training centres to recruit people from industry because they paid a lot better in industry. There is a superstructure of public sector pay which one cannot go beyond so it is a complicated issue to address. That feeds into the waiting lists and delays. Currently, across large parts of the country one could be waiting two years to do a grade III electrical course. That is holding people back a fair bit.

The issue of older people who might have a mortgage or are renting and their ability to change career and go down the apprenticeship route was mentioned. The earn-as-you-learn model makes sense but that is challenging for those who have a mortgage, childcare costs and so on. I would welcome the witnesses' thoughts on grant structures and so on we could introduce in that regard.

Senator O'Loughlin raised the point about listening to the business community. Very often when one speaks about the business community in this context it is not IBEC but the man or woman with a van and two or three people working for them we are speaking about. It is about Brownlee electrical or Trant plumbing. That is challenging in its own way because it is diffuse and atomised. It is not always easy to know exactly what the needs are. A particular issue that is regularly raised with me - this may be more particular to the urban settings - is that an awful lot more employers would be attracted to apprenticeships if apprentices were on-the-job for four days and one day in the centre, as opposed to block release for six months or 12 weeks on two occasions both in terms of the businesses ability to continue their work but also in terms of the apprentice's income and his or her ability to go to Dublin, Waterford or wherever for the courses they need to attend, which is a challenge.

There are some structural issues. The cultural issue is the biggest issue but there are some structural issues that need to be addressed as well.

Mr. Tim Conlon

I thank Deputy Ó Laoghaire for the questions. On the data, I do not have the current position to hand but I will get back to him with a briefing of where we are on the travel, access and participation targets. On the deprivation index data, we are seeing institutions start to use those data. They go right down to almost street level such that we can see the communities students are coming from and the extent to which they access higher education and progress through. Institutions can use those data to identify communities they might not have engaged with or were not aware of to find community leaders to engage with. We are able to track students in terms of their life outcomes. For students from a disadvantaged background, where they get into and through a higher education experience, at ten years post graduation, to use the Tory expression from the UK, things almost level up.

We can see that the impact on people's lives is really significant if we can get to them. Use of the data to target students, communities and areas and to communicate to them, through the schools and elsewhere, the opportunities in further and higher education, as well as in apprenticeships, and to bring them into and through college is the real advantage. The data are fairly new in that we only have them for three or four years but we are already seeing institutions starting to use them to identify what it means for them and how they can target progress more effectively. My colleagues may want to comment on that as well.

Mr. Andrew Brownlee

On the apprenticeship question, I will speak briefly about the waiting lists and the structural issues and Dr. Trant will speak to the cultural issues, the developments being worked on and the support we can provide to people to engage them in apprenticeship.

I will not repeat what I said in my opening statement but I do want to reassure the Deputy, as we have done in the past, that we are in an emergency situation. We know the level of waiting lists are not acceptable. We have made significant inroads in terms of addressing the waiting lists. There were 8,300 waiting over six months at the end of last summer. That is down to 5,608. The 70% of people who were on the waiting lists at the end of the summer have now got back into training. We are making inroads. In a way, they are victims of the success in terms of more and more people wanting to be an apprentice. Almost 7,000 joined the craft apprenticeship system last year. They are joining that queue. The Deputy is right that issues such as not being able to recruit instructors are limiting our ability to address that issue.

On the instructor question, we have got agreement not to automatically put them on the first point of the scale. If they can prove they are on a higher level of income, we can bring them on at a salary closer to that level. We all know it is not directly comparable but we can, at least, do that for them. We are also working closely with the Construction Industry Federation, CIF, to try to get people closer to retirement age who maybe do not want to be on site as much to think about the instructor route as a new career. It is a big issue and it is inhibiting us but we are working on it.

On the cultural point, I mentioned the figure of 35,000. Some 20,000 people who visited the CAO website went on to our bespoke apprenticeship options. It is helping people to think about what their options are. The proof will be in whether that leads to them actually taking up apprenticeships.

Dr. Mary-Liz Trant

The Deputy mentioned the electrical example and the promotion certain employers do in regard to particular careers. Our highest number in terms of registration is for electrical apprenticeships. There is probably the greatest awareness of the opportunity that is there for careers in that area and the good quality of life and income that is possible. The survey of apprentices and employers to be carried out later this year on issues such as what choices people are making and why will provide us with a lot of good information.

On the cultural challenge, fundamentally parents just want what is best for their children. I am from that generation where people were going to college for the first time in large numbers and there was a sense that this was the way to opportunity. It is about moving that understanding and perception that there are many different ways to have a really good career and quality of life other than doing an academic level 8 degree. It is about tackling that on many different levels. Members of the committee have a really important role to play in terms of the messages they communicate. Likewise, as organisations and agencies we have a similar role to play. It is about having those conversations and using the platform of the CAO to get those conversations going around the table. We are hearing anecdotally that young people want this choice, that they do not want to go the academic route. There is an understanding that apprenticeship is just a way of learning. It is just a different way of learning on the job and with college as well. It is about getting that point across. Our sense is - we have to get a much better handle on it - we are making progress. Measuring and getting a better handle on that measurement is going to be an important job for us this year.

The Deputy referenced the feedback from employers about block release. I was reminded recently by a large employer that back in the time-served phase, the 1980s and 1990s, most apprenticeships operated on a day-release basis.

In the 1990s, it moved to block release. We hear that employers would much prefer this. We have to be open to it.

Reviews of eight programmes, the big five and three of the wet trades, will happen this year. We have done a wide-scale survey of employers who are involved in that to get their feedback. From that feedback, we will get a good handle on what employers will want for the coming three to five years. If we need to double the number of plumbers, carpenters or plasterers and we want employers to engage and take on people, we have to make sure the model will suit them. It will, potentially, be a big transformation or disruption, but we are open to looking at that and making sure apprenticeships remain industry led and industry designed, which is a fundamental part of their continued success.

One question was not answered. It relates to older people who may have mortgages and so on returning. How do we address that? There are opportunities. People may be made redundant. Retrofitting is a significant developing industry. How do they get into that? How can they afford to do so, rather than taking a job that might pay more in the short term but probably will not do so in the long run?

Dr. Mary-Liz Trant

The benefit of an apprenticeship is a salary, even though it is not high at the beginning. It is certainly better than if one is a student investing in one's education but having to fund it all oneself. The salary for apprentices is in many cases a negotiation or an agreement between what an employer pays and, in the case of craft apprenticeships, matching it with a training allowance. It is low. It is approximately €200 for year 1, but does go up. Part of the consideration that has to go on is whether this is an investment in one's career and whether one can figure out a way of doing it.

There is no doubt that it is challenging for older apprentices and people who already have costs. It is not an easy one. There is reference in the action plan to look at some form of additional support for people who have financial requirements or need. There are things such as the student assistance fund in academic further and higher education. Could or should something be looked at for apprentices? It is complex enough in terms of figuring out how one might manage it, means testing and how it would work. As the apprentice population grows and as the profile of apprentices becomes more diverse, we will have to engage with it and look to see what could be done.

I thank the guests for attending. I welcome the submissions they have made to the committee. The central function of the committee during these hearings is to try to come forward with a recommendation on the future funding model for third level. I agree with Mr. Conlon. We have done very well as a country in terms of the funding we have and how we use it to get such a high quality of third level. I also suspect we are running out of road and we need to get a strategy and long-term policy in place for the future funding model. That is especially so since we are trying to encourage so many people to get into third level.

I will start by asking Mr. Brownlee questions. It appears to me there are three potential sources of funding for third level. There is the State, student and employer, whether an immediate or future employer. All of those three entities are beneficiaries of the third level education system. In terms of the apprenticeship area, is there an opportunity for the State to look for a greater contribution from the employer part of that triumvirate for the purpose of funding third level? Will that put too much pressure on the employer?

Mr. Andrew Brownlee

I think one of the most positive developments from the new apprenticeship action plan has been the launch of a core employer grant. This has meant that the employers of the newer apprenticeship programmes are given equivalent levels of financial support to the ones who would have taken on craft apprentices. Any disincentive, perceived or otherwise, on the part of employers that would discourage them from taking on apprentices would be a bad idea.

They already contribute through the national training fund, NTF, levy which then funds our apprenticeship provision and some higher and further education provision. To ask them to go a step further than that would be a mistake.

Does Dr. Trant agree with that? The committee recently visited the Bishopstown campus of Munster Technological University. Very impressive work is going on there in terms of training apprenticeships for the manufacture of medical devices such as hips and knees. Obviously, there is a relationship with local pharmaceutical companies in the area. Would Dr. Trant agree that we should not look for a greater financial contribution from employers?

Dr. Mary-Liz Trant

The levy that goes into the national training fund is 1%. It is a substantial amount. We have not run out of it, as yet. It was reviewed in 2019 and the amount went up a proportion. The connection between what employers put in and what they get out is much clearer now and is getting stronger. It needs to be kept under review but, for now, my sense is that we are getting a good contribution from employers and it is adequate. Certainly, as the system grows and as employers and industry continue to benefit, it will probably need to be revisited on a fairly regular basis.

Mr. Conlon will be aware of the third option put forward in the Cassells report. Everyone here recognises there is a high correlation between those who have high disposable income and the level of third level education they have attained. I am not saying that everyone has a third level education has high disposable income but, certainly, there is a high correlation between those who do and the level of educational achievement they have reached. What does Mr. Brownlee think of the recommendation in the Cassells report that if a student who goes into the workplace, does extremely well and earns a certain level of salary in their 40s, it would then be a requirement for them to pay back some of the fees?

Mr. Tim Conlon

It is a bit like the conversation around foreign direct investment, FDI, and corporate tax. Does one scare people away if one messes with the rates? The Deputy mentioned State, student and employer. All three benefit from the value of higher education. The State and population benefits from the quality of life we have from having an educated population and all that goes with that, but also the taxes it pays. We see a higher level of education and better life earnings and therefore, most likely, more tax paid. People make a contribution relative to their capacity to contribute. I would look at it from the other end. The challenging piece is for those students who cannot afford to access higher education and that imbalance in the system. We need to look more carefully at the supports in place for those who cannot access. If they cannot access, they cannot make a contribution.

We need increased funding in order to attract them and ensure that they come in.

Mr. Tim Conlon

To attract them into and support them through higher education and on to more successful lives, that is the key piece. There is something there of the balance. Those who can make a contribution should. Whether that is the State, student or employer is a tricky seat on which to put me, but all benefit from it. We have the evidence of that. However, we need to look at how we target the supports and whether we could target them better to broaden the net.

We all agree that we need increased funding in third level. The issue is the difficult question of where that funding should come from. Does Dr. Murphy agree that it should just come from the Exchequer or should we look at other options, such as the third option in the Cassells report or seeking a greater contribution from employers?

Dr. Anna Murphy

QQI does not have a review on that. I apologise. We do not have the remit in that area and it would not be correct for me to comment on it. However, I will come back to the employer contribution piece. The employers contribute in significant ways to the development of new apprenticeships by identifying the needs and occupational profiles and working with the education providers to work up the curricula. On the job, they do not just employ somebody for that period of time. They provide mentoring, on-the-job training, support and, possibly, assessment.

There is quite a lot, therefore, for the employer to do beyond the financial side. I am not implying that is all the Deputy is thinking of, but it is worth bringing that to his attention because it is part of the mix.

My next question is for all our guests but I might direct it first at Dr. Murphy. Is she concerned about there being a declining quality in third level education in Ireland because of the uncertainty that hangs over the funding of it?

Dr. Anna Murphy

As I said earlier, there is evidence from our work on quality assurance that there has been an impact, going back to 2016. The answer is "Yes", but the impact is mixed.

Mr. Tim Conlon

In regard to staff to student ratios, student numbers have been increasing and the staffing numbers have not kept pace. We have not seen evidence of a decline in quality but, when the core business is teaching and learning, other matters have to be squeezed. I wonder about issues such as international engagement and some of the other good functions we provide in higher education. Higher education is about research, teaching and learning, but it is also about Ireland's place in the world, our relationships with other nations, our involvement in research programmes and so on. The capacity for some of those issues is being squeezed. Institutions will always protect the student first and foremost - that is what they are there for - but it is the additional functions they would like to provide that they may not have the capacity for.

Are Mr. Brownlee and Dr. Trant concerned there may be a decline in the quality of third level in this country because of the uncertainty associated with funding?

Mr. Andrew Brownlee

My agency is responsible for further education and training and apprenticeships, so it would be difficult for me to comment on quality in that regard. Dr. Trant might have some views from an apprenticeship perspective.

Dr. Mary-Liz Trant

There is not an issue arising at the moment with regard to apprenticeships.

To follow on from Deputy O'Callaghan, funding will be the most contentious issue of the day when it is eventually being decided. What are our guests' views on the idea of student loans? There is an argument for an enhanced SUSI grant, maintaining some type of current funding model or something similar to what exists at the moment. Will they tease out those two issues?

Mr. Tim Conlon

We need to explore and rebalance how we support students to get through higher education. The grant system is difficult for those on the margins, given they either qualify or do not. We need to examine the overall balance of that. Student loans have not necessarily been successful in the UK, for example. The increase in student fees there has had a fairly major impact on certain cohorts of students we might want to attract. The number of mature students in the UK has fallen significantly because of the introduction of higher fees and the growth of student loans. Certain cohorts of students are risk averse and will not want to take on a loan, so it can act as a barrier. It needs to be thought about carefully. I would prefer a system of fees and grants that is more equitably balanced towards supporting the students most in need. I think that is the issue to examine.

Mr. Andrew Brownlee

We are responsible for further education and apprenticeships, so it probably would not be appropriate for us to comment on higher education.

In light of the financial circumstances of some of our universities in the recent past, without going into details, is Mr. Conlon concerned about the borrowing capacity of some institutions, especially in the short to medium term?

Mr. Tim Conlon

The institutions are autonomous bodies and they have to make decisions for themselves, including commercial ones, such as regarding the development of student accommodation and so on.

Of course, that can be challenging. If an institution develops student accommodation, there will be costs and it will have to maintain the loans and pay for them. When students are not in the accommodation, that can be challenging. We do not have any significant concerns. The institutions are reasonably well funded and well prepared, although we have just been through a global pandemic and the impacts of that have yet to be felt. The Government has been very supportive in one of the areas in which I am involved, namely, research. It has made an investment to support research students in order that their careers will not have been impacted, to support research projects and to keep the endeavours in institutions going. Supports have been put in place to keep institutions operational and providing services to students, but I do not know whether we have yet seen the overall impact of a global pandemic on the system. That is something we will have to watch carefully.

Student accommodation is one of the main issues of the day. We have our own problems in Cork, with which both Deputy Ó Laoghaire and I are familiar.

Mr. Brownlee stated, “There also still exists major untapped potential in developing further apprenticeship programmes across FET.” Will he expand on that? Where are the trends likely to lead us in the future?

Mr. Andrew Brownlee

There was the new apprenticeship action plan in 2015, but the education and training boards, ETBs, which provide further education and training, were relatively new then. They were formed only in 2013, the same year our organisation was, so they were still getting to grips with their role in the regions, what they needed to provide and the structures of their organisation. When the two new apprenticeship calls came along, they were probably not at a sufficient stage of maturity to get the full potential value out of them, and that is why we need constantly to look at what they have to offer. There are many opportunities in the green skills space and in construction. One ETB has developed a scaffolding apprenticeship and there is talk in another ETB about creating a construction technician one. There is a significant opportunity to support the ETBs to come forward with new proposals regarding apprenticeships.

Are many cybersecurity courses being rolled out? I was listening to someone talking about the subject on the radio while I was travelling to the Houses earlier.

Mr. Andrew Brownlee

Dr. Trant might comment on that.

Dr. Mary-Liz Trant

A level 6 cybersecurity apprenticeship is available in the majority of ETBs at this stage. It was introduced three years ago and well over 100 people are currently taking part in it. There is also a follow-on level 8 cybersecurity apprenticeship in development, which will be a really good progression path. It is being developed in the mid-west. It very much emerged from the crisis that happened at the HSE earlier in the pandemic and in light of the awareness that Ireland would need to gear up significantly in the area of cybersecurity, both public and private. It is due to come on stream later this year. The ETB is working hard on it and there will be a really good pathway into it for people who have come through the level 6 course, if that is something they wish to do. With those two offerings, there will be a significant contribution to the area within industry and nationally as well.

Is Dr. Trant satisfied we have a sufficient pipeline to deliver, or come close to achieving, the target of 300,000 homes to have been retrofitted by 2030? Is she satisfied that the number of apprenticeships and the intake we are getting will be sufficient?

Dr. Mary-Liz Trant

We know it will be challenging. We will need many more apprentices to come through and we may need to look at other ways of getting the talent as well. Work is being done - it is close to being finalised - to examine what we have, what the demand and the gap will be and what we will need to do to fill it. There were more than 8,600 registrations last year, the majority of which, or almost 7,000, were in construction. The pipeline is strong and growing and is at its highest level since 2009. There is a good baseline but our sense of it, without having seen the data and the analysis, is that it will have to be increased significantly.

We have the education and training boards on standby, and the technological universities as well. All the indications are that the education system is ready to step up and provide the investment, the capital, the workshops and the instructors, and it is up to the industry side to take on apprentices, employ them and get those numbers through.

I have one last comment. The reason I asked that question is that we went on a trip to the Munster Technological University, MTU, in recent months and one of the issues cited was that, physically, it did not have the space to do a lot of the training that was envisaged. It was something that was flagged with us that day as a concern.

I welcome the witnesses. I am grateful for their contributions and the submissions as well. I might go through a couple of questions, which I will direct to each of the groups for a response.

The first question is for Mr. Conlon and the HEA. We are seeing a significant increase in the number of students at third level, which is placing a big demand on services. I hope it has increased access as well. Reference was made in the submission to lifelong learning. We are below the EU average when it comes to lifelong learning. I know that is not just due to the HEA, as there are many players within this space. How can the future model of increased funding support lifelong learning? How does the HEA foresee working with HEIs to improve that?

Could Mr. Conlon tell me how many students have come through PATH? I was very interested to hear about those two programmes and the deprivation index scores. Is that recent funding? Do we have any statistics on students who have come through the programmes?

We have met Mr. Brownlee from SOLAS several times. It is fantastic to hear about the number of people coming through to the CAO website. It is phenomenal that we are seeing the addition to the CAO form this year. Every chance I get to speak to students, I talk to about how the CAO is not solely about the traditional routes into college but that when they look at the CAO form now there is a choice for further and higher education. At the weekend, I was speaking to a young student who is looking at a pre-nursing course perhaps, instead of going straight into nursing, which shows there are choices in that regard. Such an approach drives choice.

How do we encourage employers? Mr. Brownlee spoke a bit on this too. I am talking especially about micro enterprises and sole traders. How do we engage with that group in particular? I am not talking about the likes of ESB Networks or Electric Ireland, for example. Dr. Trant referred to the significant interest in electrical apprenticeships. How do we engage with micro enterprises, for example, in the region I am from, Roscommon and east Galway, where we are dealing with a lot more supply companies? In addition, they do not have time. They are up the walls. How do we make it easier for them? How do we make better use of the national training fund? Do the witnesses have any suggestions in that regard?

It was very nice to meet Dr. Trant. Her contributions were very informative. She referred to the 62 training programmes we have at the moment. I understand that in the past year, 18 more training programmes were to come on stream. It was mentioned that it is planned to have 70 by the end of this year. Could she give me a timeline for the remainder? Some very interesting programmes were mentioned, such as farm management and equestrian studies. That is of particular interest for me with Mountbellew Agricultural College and linking in with the technological universities. It would be of interest to farmers. Farm relief schemes could help older farmers to bring in some of the students coming through such apprenticeship programmes. I would be interested in looking at the possibility that they could also support a number of farmers in a particular region.

Dr. Trant also mentioned 8,300 employers. That is fantastic altogether. I do not know if she has anything to add to what Mr. Brownlee has said, but this question might be more for her. It relates to the registration of 10,000 apprenticeships per year. Are we roughly at around 8,000 at the moment? I know registrations were ramped up this year and last year. Perhaps I do not understand it, but how are the planned 10,000 apprenticeships broken down between employers that want to take on apprentices, colleges that bring people in and placements?

I apologise as I do not have much to ask of Dr. Murphy from QQI, but if she would like to add anything to those points, she is very welcome to do so. I will start with Mr. Conlon, then Mr. Brownlee and Dr. Trant.

Mr. Tim Conlon

I will try to be brief in respect of progress to date on access groups. In 2019-2020, there were five students from disadvantaged areas to every ten students from more affluent areas. These are perhaps the challenges first and then I might talk about progress. Some 10% of the student population came from disadvantaged areas compared to 19% from more affluent areas. Only 51 students in the country come from extremely disadvantaged backgrounds. In courses with high points, such as medicine, 5% of new entrants come from disadvantaged areas. We can see from the deprivation index scores, DIS, data where students are coming from.

I apologise for interrupting, but does the DIS allow the HEA to evaluate data about students currently on courses? It is not about evaluating students who are applying to the CAO and that the colleges use the DIS data to allocate places.

Mr. Tim Conlon

Not as of yet, because we are only collecting the data for the past three years. Now we can look at the data and use evidence to inform policy. We can see the make-up of the student cohort in a particular programme and where they are coming from, and we can ask the institutions what they are doing to address the challenge and to change the balance.

Does the HEA have the power to work with HEIs on particular courses such as medicine where Mr. Conlon says the number of students from disadvantaged areas is so low? Can the HEA refer to students from disadvantaged areas based on the DIS scores and ask that it be taken into account in terms of a cohort of places being allocated? Is that something we can look at?

Mr. Tim Conlon

It is something we can encourage through policy.

The HEA can incentivise colleges and bring about a sea change.

Mr. Tim Conlon

We can drive the agenda. Institutions are autonomous in respect of academic matters such as student entry, programme content and so on, so we do not want to interfere with that autonomy. We can hold institutions to account. We have a very detailed process called the strategic dialogue, where we meet institutions on an annual basis and talk about their performance with reference to key performance indicators. We can use that process to ask what they are doing to improve the number of students from varied backgrounds on medical programmes, for example.

I will come back to Mr. Conlon on the example he uses in terms of change at third level, in particular in traditional HEIs. I thank Mr. Conlon. I will move on to Mr. Brownlee as I am conscious of the time.

Mr. Andrew Brownlee

On the point about engaging with micro enterprises, that is an area where ETBs are very well placed because, as we said at the start, they are involved in every community in Ireland. They know the local employers and businesses. We have implemented a scheme called Skills to Advance, which offers free or very close to free upskilling and training for employees. We have a green skills initiative for the hospitality industry, 50 Shades Greener. Retrofitting has been rolled out at Mount Lucas and in Waterford and Wexford. We have courses on remote working and leadership management supervision digital skills. They are the type of skills that every micro enterprise is going to need to take the next step.

Companies can do those courses to advance skills, but they cannot take on apprentices themselves. It is more challenging to take on apprentices or offer placements and to bring in somebody brand new and skill them up.

Mr. Andrew Brownlee

That is the big priority in the action plan. Perhaps Dr. Trant wishes to add something?

Dr. Mary-Liz Trant

One very practical thing that has happened this year was the introduction of the €2,000 grant for the 37 new apprenticeships. That is going to be a big help to get the grant each year for each apprentice. That is a financial contribution to small employers.

I am sorry to rush Dr. Trant, but due to the time constraints I must ask if we can we see the difference between now and a year ago. The grant for €2,000 has been in place for two years and €1,000 comes in after six months. Have we seen a difference in the take-up by micro employers? The issue for me is that they are coming into a company where the micro employer does not have the time to skill the person up and he or she cannot afford them to be gone for two days for training. I know we are looking at measures and ways to manage that. Have we seen a difference in the past two years since the incentive was introduced? I do not know if the incentive alone is enough.

Dr. Mary-Liz Trant

The overall number of employers has gone up, but I do not have the detail on the breakdown in terms of whether they are micro, small or large, but that is something on which we can come back to the Senator.

I am sorry, but I am probably out of time. Could Dr. Trant also come back to me with a breakdown between the different areas for the 10,000 registrations? I do not know if there is time to respond.

Dr. Trant can make a brief response.

Dr. Mary-Liz Trant

The 10,000 registrations were targeted for 2025. That is apprentices being employed by an employer and then going in and completing their training. They are employed and then they have an arrangement for them to get their training.

I am sorry for interrupting, but is that done through the colleges? Does an apprentice go to the college, do a FET course and the college has a placement set up with the employer? Is it the employer that arranges it directly?

Dr. Mary-Liz Trant

The employer gives apprentices a contract of employment and registers them as apprentices. That is the way it starts.

They then link in with the university.

Dr. Mary-Liz Trant


I just was not clear whether there were other options for it. I thank Dr. Trant.

I call Deputies Conway-Walsh and Ó Laoghaire for five minutes each.

Does Dr. Trant know how many craft apprenticeships were completed last year or even in the past 12 months to date?

Dr. Mary-Liz Trant

Is this the people who completed their qualification?

Dr. Mary-Liz Trant

I do not have that figure available but I can get it.

It would be great if Dr. Trant could supply that. Private colleges that provide apprenticeship training is a recent development. Where does Dr. Trant see that in the context of the future decentralisation of the craft model for apprenticeships? Will she speak to the role of private colleges in that?

I will also ask Mr. Conlon about accommodation. Probably the biggest barrier to third-level education for students outside the large towns is affording accommodation. I was in Mayo yesterday and met members of the county council. There are 24 places for rent in Mayo. I am very concerned that we have these technological universities we have waited so long for, which have enormous potential, but we will not have accommodation. We speak about the need for a framework for independent borrowing for the technological sector absolutely without question. However, when we look at the challenges facing the universities, which have the borrowing power, we clearly see that it is not a silver bullet for delivering affordable accommodation. What do we need to do in order for that to be able to work? We need to address in advance the panacea of technological universities having the ability to borrow.

Dr. Mary-Liz Trant

I will start with the question about the migration of craft apprenticeships and the potential role for-profit colleges, private or not, might have in that. There has been significant investment in the infrastructure, including workshops in the public system, in education and training boards and in technological universities. The intention for now is to maintain investment in that infrastructure. That is not to say that over time there may not be other partnerships that develop on the education and training side, but our big challenge is to develop a process to migrate the craft apprenticeships into the system in a way that builds on what has already been invested and increases that provision within the public system for now.

Good. I would not like to see the money following the private institutions when public institutions are starved of funding, especially capital funding. Thanks for that. On the accommodation question-----

Mr. Tim Conlon

I was asking if Dr. Trant might take that one too. It is a tricky one. Higher education institutions are in the business of the provision of education and research. To some extent, they expand their enterprise into things such as student accommodation or sports provision and so on. They are a very tricky balancing act and very risky investments because they are long term. Students are also very hard on student accommodation. To provide and maintain it and so on comes at a cost.

We talked earlier about the scale and capacity of the technological universities. They have a lot to deliver in respect of their requirements under the legislation in the short to near term. The way in which they take on other endeavours, beyond the core of getting the business right, will need careful consideration. We are in the process of merging two or three institutions at various locations nationally into technological universities. Should we take on large-scale capital projects on top of that? If I was to think about how we would assist or work with institutions in that space, they will need external advice and assistance in taking on major capital projects that include going to market tenders. We know that building costs, for example, are 30% higher at present across the economy. Institutions need advice and assistance. They might not necessarily have the capacity. Even if the ability to borrow was made available, would they take it on?

That is what I am saying.

Mr. Tim Conlon

It needs careful analysis.

We need to look at it now. We talk about access but what if there is no affordable accommodation for students to be able to live? If we look at a county such as Mayo, for somebody living in Belmullet or Blacksod it is more than an hour to travel to the university each day and it is not feasible. Someone would need student accommodation beside or near the Mayo campus. We do not want people travelling all the time when there is climate change and all that. We need to look at it now and we need to make sure that it is part of the future funding model. That is what I am saying.

Mr. Tim Conlon

I think so. It is also about the assist to some institutions because, as I said, they need to very carefully consider the market and the economic viability of accommodation. Of course, we want to provide it at the lowest possible cost to students, which is also part the challenge, but if the project does not wash its own face, for want of a better expression, then it creates a problem further down the line for institutions. The investments need to be considered very carefully. External expertise and advice will be very important to institutions in that regard. That is perhaps where we can step up and assist by providing them with the advice.

Maybe that is one of the research projects that can be done.

I will briefly echo that point. One of the issues that has arisen in recent years is third-level institutions will very often set up a company at arm's length to deliver accommodation but that means they cannot cross-finance it when the company runs into financial difficulties. What ends up happening is rents go up, sometimes very significantly.

I have three fairly brief questions on the apprenticeship side of things. It was raised with me recently whether there was a course on Irish Sign Language. Is that something that is offered through apprenticeships? I am not sure where that operates.

It was suggested to me by one employer that an element of running a business-type training would be useful to those in third- and fourth-year courses, including a basic overview of pricing, overheads, tax, VAT registration and insurance.

I will touch on one of the cost issues. I take the point about the training fee, and I am not quite sure of the solution to this, but some of the exam fees are significant. It costs €1,750 for a phase 4 electrical instrumentation exam and €1,000 for phase 6. That is ultimately a fairly lucrative career, but if apprentices do not have it they do not have it. It also adds a fair bit of value for the employer. I do not know whether there are certain circumstances where a very profitable employer could pay that and, where that is not the case, perhaps SOLAS could. It is a big cost up front. There are credit union loans and so on but almost €2,000 for an exam is a big fee.

Dr. Mary-Liz Trant

On the Deputy's point about Irish Sign Language, there are no apprenticeships available for that. However, further education courses are available. It might be more suitable for a traineeship where there is a work-based element but it is supported and hosted by an education institution of some sort. We can get a little more detail on what is available.

Mr. Andrew Brownlee

Can I clarify if the Deputy means a separate course or to get apprentices help if they are deaf? What are we-----

It is for instructors. It probably is more appropriate to higher education.

Dr. Mary-Liz Trant

Perhaps a traineeship or a shorter course. A number of them are available.

Mr. Andrew Brownlee

There are definitely courses out there so we can look for-----

Dr. Mary-Liz Trant

We can provide that information to the Deputy. We were looking at the idea of adding on a module or a top-up on running their own businesses that apprentices could access just before the pandemic hit, and then surviving and keeping the system going took over. It is something we would very much like to come back to. The benefit of the pandemic and looking at online provision is to consider drawing on something such as e-college and the online system to build and develop a module that apprentices could decide to take on and would get student support for online. It could be something they build on and add to their apprenticeship qualification.

It is definitely something we want, because many apprentices go into running their own business and to get that more formal assistance would be very helpful to them.

On the various apprenticeships and the cost for phase 4 and phase 6, it is not official, but there are employers who help out apprentices where there is a financial challenge but, obviously, that is not possible. We spoke about micro-enterprises earlier and that is not something an employer can always do. It can be a real challenge. There is reference in the action plan for apprenticeship to look at some form of bursary for apprentices in particular situations. We could potentially look at challenges such as that, where there is some form of financial support available for apprentices who are genuinely struggling, due to whatever their life circumstances are, to continue and complete their apprenticeship. However, it is something that we do not have at the moment, but certainly something that we will want to look at.

Mr. Tim Conlon

I wish to comment on Irish Sign Language, ISL, provision. In terms of higher education, there is both formal and informal provision. There is a particular course nationally. It goes to some of conversations we were having earlier and I will get to the point in a second. Indeed, Senator Dolan raised a point about lifelong learning as well. To provide a high-quality provision, it is by nature specialised and provided in one location, because all of the expertise is in the right place. However, that of course does not serve a student population around the country very well. How do they engage in a programme that is provided in one institution and one place? It goes to the point about lifelong learning and the micro-credentials that we started to discuss and how the funding model might follow that.

The Deputy made the point earlier with the example of an older learner who wants to re-engage. They cannot re-engage full time or formally because they have work, life and a mortgage and all kinds of responsibilities. One of the areas we started to discuss was around micro-credentials and the way in which the funding model would follow that. At the moment, the funding model very much follows a student who enters further or higher education for a period of time in their lives and it funds them, the grant follows that and that all works. What if one wants to dip in and out and does a bit here and there? What if one wants to do some ISL in Tralee or Wexford or wherever? How can one engage with an institution flexibly? We are at a very interesting time with the use of digital and online tools and the digital divide is starting to be overcome. We are delivering education in new and inventive ways. However, the student-supported funding model does not necessary follow that. That will be very complex to work through and to work out. That is the big opportunity in terms of the funding model. On micro-credentials, and Dr. Murray kicked me under the table over it, that will be very complicated in terms of qualification recognition and how to knit it all together and how it all comes to form a degree in time. That is the opportunity, both in terms of ISL provision and doing it in a more flexible, open way to engage with more students in their communities in different ways. Sorry, I did not want to ramble on that, but my broadcast is there is an opportunity to look at how the funding model can follow the student in a more flexible way than has been the case.

The Chair might correct me, but I think kicking under the table is against Standing Orders.

That concludes our discussion. I thank the witnesses for coming before us today and their honest exchange of views that we will work into our report, which we hope to publish before the summer recess. I have no doubt that they will be back before the committee for another discussion on another day.

The joint committee adjourned at 1.23 p.m. until 11 a.m. on Tuesday, 8 March 2022.