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Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science debate -
Tuesday, 29 Mar 2022

Future Funding of Higher Education: Discussion (Resumed)

We are joined by Mr. Peter Brown, director at the Irish Research Council, IRC; Dr. Ciarán Seoighe, deputy director general at Science Foundation Ireland, SFI; Dr. Arjumand Younus, co-director of Women in Research Ireland; Mr. Tony Donohoe, policy advisor at the Irish Business and Employers Confederation, IBEC; Mr. Neil McDonnell, chief executive of the Irish Small and Medium Enterprises, ISME; Dr. Emer Smyth, research professor in the social research division and growing up in Ireland of the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI; and Dr. Niall Kennedy, founding member of the Irish Precarity Network.

The witnesses are here to discuss future funding for higher education. The form of the meeting is I will ask Mr. Brown to make a brief opening statement, to be followed by Dr. Seoighe, Dr. Younus, Mr. Donohoe, Mr. McDonnell, Dr. Emer Smyth and Dr. Kennedy. This will be followed by questions from members of the committee, with each member having an eight-minute slot for the questions to be asked and for witnesses to respond. There are timers on the screen so the witnesses and members might keep a close eye on them.

As witnesses are probably aware, the committee will publish opening statements on the website following the meeting. Before beginning 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 him or her identifiable, or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of a person or entity. If the witnesses' statements are potentially defamatory in relation to an identifiable person or entity, they will be requested by the Chair to discontinue their remarks, and it is imperative that they comply with such a direction from the Chair.

Mr. Brown is giving evidence remotely from a location outside parliament precincts and as such may not benefit from the same level of immunity from legal proceedings as a witness who is physically present does. He has already been advised on this matter. I invite him to give his evidence

Mr. Peter Brown

On behalf of the Irish Research Council, I am grateful for the invitation to participate in this round-table discussion on the future funding of higher education. The IRC is an associated agency of the Department under the aegis of the Higher Education Authority, HEA. The IRC’s mission is to support excellence in research talent, knowledge and engagement. We collaborate with a range of stakeholders and partners within and outside the research system to deliver on this mission.

The research and innovation system functions as a critical national strategic resource in the face of the uncertainty that underpins national or global challenges. The emergence of Covid-19 is an example of a global crisis that caught this planet unaware, and research expertise in different disciplines has been critical to navigating through the crisis. Knowledge and expertise will be even more critical in future as we seek to solve the climate crisis and make a successful transition to a green, sustainable and, indeed, peaceful future.

The impact of investment in research and innovation is multifaceted. These impacts include, first, the development of new knowledge and expertise across disciplines that equips us with the ability to make informed decisions around known and not-yet-known challenges. Second, the right partnership structures enables the diffusion of that knowledge across government, enterprise and civil society. Third, it provides a pipeline of highly skilled and qualified research graduates to meet the needs of enterprise, the public sector, higher education and civil society. Finally, through research-informed teaching and learning, the development of an emerging and future graduate workforce who are equipped to collectively overcome national or global societal challenges is facilitated.

Research and evidence clearly show the link between investment in basic research and productivity growth. Growth in productivity is not solely a function of technological innovation, it is also influenced by skills, the health of the workforce, the quality of infrastructure, childcare, education, social cohesion, and broad quality of life. Research and innovation across disciplines contributes to progress in these areas, including through evidence-based policy and decision-making. As has been observed elsewhere, sustainable growth and innovation in the context of a service-dominated economy requires a mix of disciplines and not just science, technology, engineering and mathematics, STEM.

A vibrant ecosystem of research for knowledge requires long-term, predictable funding schemes addressing all disciplines and all career stages. Fundamental research is by its nature not geared towards immediate technological deployment or application. It is, however, frontier basic research that lays the foundations for the innovations of the future. As members of the committee will no be doubt aware, Ireland’s share of public investment in research does not compare well with her peers in Europe. The addressing of this for the system as a whole, while building research capacity and staff within the emerging technological university system, should be among the ambitions for the next national research strategy.

In the context of the future funding of research and innovation, balance between STEM and arts, humanities and social sciences, AHSS, is critical to maximizing the potential of the research and innovation system. There is recognition both across the EU and in Ireland that interdisciplinary research will be key to successfully overcoming current and future challenges. Ireland has the potential to be a global exemplar for interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research.

International connectivity and collaboration are at the core of any functioning research and innovation system, existing as it does across myriad networks of peers and expertise across the globe. The global public health crisis has demonstrated how investment in research and innovation by national jurisdictions and the EU have collectively been mobilised for truly global impact.

Investing in an adequate pipeline of research awards across disciplines and career stages, both individual- and cohort-based, is critical to making Ireland a destination of choice in research and innovation. Current success rates on key schemes in the ecosystem have been frequently too low for some time, however, meaning that we are losing truly excellent candidates from the research system or, more likely, to other countries. Investment in research and innovation, RI, should facilitate minimum 25% - 30% success rates for all our key funding schemes.

I close this statement on the matter of our postgraduate researchers who are the future of the system. A national, minimum postgraduate stipend, linked to the cost of living and that is internationally competitive, should be introduced for all funded postgraduate researchers, and should be systematically reviewed.

I thank the committee for the opportunity to address it and I look forward to the wider discussion.

I thank Mr. Brown and now call on Dr. Ciarán Seoighe of Science Foundation Ireland.

Dr. Ciarán Seoighe

I thank the Chairman. On behalf of SFI, I am delighted to be here and I thank the committee for the opportunity to present. Science Foundation Ireland has put detailed submissions and ideas before this committee and I propose to summarise some of these key findings and suggestions that we would like to take forward.

In essence, the committee would be well aware and would resonate much of what Mr. Brown from the IRC has just said, which is that we are well aware of the need for investment in research and innovation. I would very much like to focus on the opportunity this presents. The investment itself provides very significant opportunities for the country. We know that we have challenges to face as a country such as climate change, and many others, and the challenge here for us is to make best use of our research in order to deliver upon these challenges and opportunities. I will discuss some of these challenges and opportunities, what they might mean for Ireland, and how we might address and benefit from them.

Climate change could present both a challenge but also an opportunity for us. We have the opportunity to do very well in renewable energies as we have a marine footprint that nobody else has. With the research that we can do, we can leverage that to become net exporters of energy. This can be a very positive outcome for our country. We need the research, however, to understand what technology we would use, how we could do this without impacting the biosphere, how we take that energy and transport it, and the evolution of green hydrogen as a new mechanism. There are very significant opportunities for us as a country to grasp these, if we invest appropriately.

Similarly, we know that we have an advantage as a country. Our small size is both an advantage and a disadvantage. We do not have the budgets of the large economies in countries such as the US, the UK and Europe but we have that interconnectedness as a country. We are agile and nimble, which is a strategic advantage for us as a country if we enable our research community. In many ways I am proposing that we unleash the power and potential of our research community by appropriately investing in it at all levels.

There are other areas that we need to be prepared for as a country. We know that there are real opportunities coming in the changes to medicine and drug discovery. Given the companies that are here and the high-value jobs they bring and given the learning and the things we have seen from Covid-19; this also presents a real opportunity for us as a country.

Further down the road, we are an ICT-heavy country where many of the heavy ICT companies are based in Ireland. We know that the next evolution in research and innovation is going to be in quantum technologies, and with quantum computing and Internet which are also coming. It behoves us as a country to be prepared for this through the skills and the talent of the people that we will have in the country. Our key argument is that we need to have those talented individuals and the best people who can lead Ireland forward in these new and emerging technologies.

We also need to consider increasing the research, development and innovation, RDI, intensity in the regions, in particular, and in our SMEs and how we do better in that space.

The high-value jobs of the future and the solutions to our societal challenges are going to be delivered by having the best quality talent, with the PhDs and the postdoctoral students who are going to come out of our system. To deliver on those, we need the researchers who are going to train and teach them.

One of the core principles in the Magna Carta of the universities is the intractable connectedness between research and teaching. We see and support that benefit in the funding and research that SFI provide. We need to look at how we do that. We propose four main principles. First, we invest appropriately in the higher education systems, in general. We also invest in world-class doctoral education, so that we are producing the most sought-after PhD students in the world that attract both the best researchers and the best companies to be here. We then need to enable research as a strategic asset. We have seen during the process of Covid-19 the importance of having our researchers in Ireland available to us when we need them. This will also apply to other challenges we will face and it is a strategic asset. It is about knowledge and making policy decisions based upon data and good science. Finally, we need to look at the evolution of the technological universities, TUs, and what they mean, particularly in engaging in SMEs, as I mentioned earlier, on a regional basis and in smart specialisation, which is an area where we could very much focus on in respect of the benefits that research can bring.

Right now we have a highly efficient system where we are trying to attract the best and brightest but if we do not invest appropriately, we will not attract such people. Equally, our best and brightest could leave and that is a spiral that we do not want to go down. I am, however, an inveterate optimist and I honestly believe that if we invest appropriately, the returns to our economy and to our society of such appropriate investment in research and innovation will pay significant dividends. I thank the Chairman and I look forward to further discussion.

I thank Dr. Seoighe and now call Dr. Arjumand Younus of Women in Research Ireland.

Dr. Arjumand Younus

I work as a research scientist in a multinational called Afiniti AI, while also being on an hourly-paid assistant lecturer contract in TU Dublin. I am here to represent WIRI, which is a volunteer-run charity working towards increased representation for women and other under-represented groups in Irish higher education spaces. I will focus on some critical aspects of higher education in Ireland and their impact on women and minority groups. Specifically, the areas of funding, working conditions and accessibility are of utmost importance to Women in Research Ireland.

Ireland is investing less and less in higher education. An OECD report confirms that in 2018, the Government directed less funding than the OECD average towards this key knowledge economy contributor. The current financial model for Irish higher education institutions, HEIs, is unsustainable due to funding shortfalls and growing budgetary demands. HEA data shows that while funding for higher education was reduced by 38% between 2009 and 2016, the number of students grew by 34,000.

We in WIRI, other women and minority groups have experienced first-hand what this funding crisis means, namely, job insecurity, stagnant wages and chronically overworked academics. Underinvestment continues to compromise the quality of higher education in Ireland. It impedes access to education for the most vulnerable members of our society. This is worrying not only for current stakeholders but for future generations in Ireland. The current higher education policy must be revised to include a funding model that is sustainable. It must recognise the utmost importance of skilled workforce development, economy-focused collaborations, and the expansion of core funding for teaching and research.

With regard to the working conditions of women and minorities in Ireland, there has been progress. We have four female university presidents, the first having been only appointed in 2020. Yet the majority of female academics are in precarious short-term posts and are contractually obligated to perform menial tasks. They are denied the dignity and respect they deserve for their hard-earned doctoral degrees. Their casual and fixed-term contracts devastate finances, mental health and make it impossible to plan for a family or the future.

We highlight the plight of women in academia because there is a gender divide in Irish universities. Women hold 71% of part-time temporary academic jobs, while 60% of permanent, full-time academic roles are held by men. A UCD Gender Equality Action Group report shows that 60% of female staff at University College Cork, UCC, University College Dublin, UCD, and National University of Ireland, Galway, NUIG, were on temporary contracts in 2019. Furthermore, a HEA survey stated that academics from ethnic minority groups are routinely denied equality and are paid less than their white academic peers. They are more likely to have experienced racial or ethnic discrimination. This tells us that women and minorities in Ireland are trapped in exploitative working conditions, with little opportunities for fair and balanced career progressions.

We welcome the gender equality action plans that require universities to report progress on goals under threat of a possible loss of Government funding if they fail. Yet we also insist that age, race and disability discrimination are not left unaddressed. We are confident our higher education representatives are able to implement policy levers to shape the future of higher education with an integrated strategy and the input of relevant stakeholders. This includes the creation of permanent, project-independent positions and professorships in HEIs that demonstrate gender and racial equality.

We believe the entire university staff should be represented on academic committees and universities' management platforms. Those in postdoctoral positions, teaching assistants and minority staff, especially, are often not represented when important decisions in university are made. Precarious, hourly-paid representatives need to be at departmental meetings, networking events, committee meetings and sit at the decision making table. They play a vital role in supporting the development of higher education in Ireland and their voices should be heard.

Furthermore, the absence of data is an impediment for the situation of academics to be clearly understood and acted upon. WIRI recommends data on participation, progression rates and the lived experience of staff at all levels be collected. Those data can be used to design adequate and up to date quality and inclusion strategies and initiatives.

We call for the collaboration of all research stakeholders to improve the governance and management of research careers and to improve, diversity, equity and inclusion, DEI, at the Irish higher education level.

Mr. Tony Donohoe

I thank the joint committee for this opportunity to address the members on what is a critical issue for business. IBEC has supplied a more detailed submission, therefore, I will make some general introductory comments.

It is almost six years ago since I presented evidence to the Joint Committee on Education and Skills on this same subject. We were discussing the findings of Report of the Expert Group on Future Funding for Higher Education or the Cassells report. The expert group was unequivocal in its assessment of the scale of the challenge. It stated:

The funding system is simply not fit for purpose. It fails to recognise the current pressures facing higher education institutions or the scale of the coming demographic changes ... These pressures are now seriously threatening the quality within the system ... A decision to accept the status quo or to make minor tweaks to it are incompatible with our national ambition ...

Since the report was published, we have witnessed some momentous global events but some things have not changed. Public funding for the higher education sector has not even returned to pre-financial crisis levels and rapidly increasing student numbers has resulted in an almost 50% increase in the funding per student.

The impact of the funding shortfall is most plainly seen in the declining performance of Ireland’s universities in international rankings. Thirteen years ago, there were two Irish universities in the top 100, with one in the top 50. Today no institutions are in the top 100. Rankings are selective measurements and, in themselves, do not represent a full picture of the quality and diversity of higher education. However, whatever about their limitations, they cannot be ignored. They can have an impact on the ability of Irish HEIs to attract international students, academic talent, research partners and benefactors. From a business perspective, they also have the potential to damage our reputation with international investors.

It is a great pity that lack of funding is undermining some of the significant reforms that have been made in recent years. The recently created TUs have the potential to act as an anchor for innovation and high-tech skills development in the regions but delivering this transformation requires a targeted and sufficient capital investment programme across physical, teaching and research infrastructure. The recently created National Apprenticeship Office also has the potential to drive reforms in a critical area but increased funding for advanced degree level apprenticeships, in particular, could provide alternative progression pathways for students and improve alignment between further and higher education.

Employers contribute directly to higher and further education through a 1% levy on reckonable earnings collected through the PRSI system into the National Training Fund, NTF. In recognition of the value of highly skilled graduates to industry, this levy increased from 0.7% in 2017 to 1% in 2020 and NTF income is expected to reach more than €850 million this year. The increased funding has underpinned important new programmes such as the human capital initiative, which has facilitated innovative projects such as a national framework for microcredentials. This will boost opportunities for lifelong learning and industry-academic collaboration. However, in recent years, the funding has also been used as a short-term fix due to the lack of a credible and more sustainable solution for higher education funding. The priority for the NTF must remain in supporting businesses to engage with education providers to address acute and emerging skills needs and to incentivise higher levels of employee learning.

There are compelling social and cultural reasons for investing in higher education but this should also be seen as investment in the economy’s productive capacity. A report by the economic consultancy, Indecon, in 2019 estimated that the university sector alone contributes the equivalent of about €9 for every €1 spent by the State.

It is more than five years since the Government asked the European Commission’s structural reform support programme to prepare an economic evaluation of the Cassells report proposals. We have still not heard anything tangible from that process since. We cannot continue to prevaricate. Obviously, there are competing demands on the public purse, which can more readily attract public and political attention but we should be aware the third level funding deficit is an invisible crisis that has already damaged our international reputation to attract research and business investment, and is silently eroding our competitive edge.

I thank the committee for this opportunity and look forward to answering questions.

Mr. Neil McDonnell

ISME is grateful for the opportunity to make a submission to the committee. While we are in favour of continued Government support for higher education, we do not believe that free tertiary education for all would represent an effective allocation of State resources. We also do not believe it should be at the expense of employers, who already fund the national training fund via PRSI.

Regarding the future expansion of the technological universities, we do not see the logic behind creating more universities in the country while our technical and vocational education continues to falter. Ireland’s tertiary educational attainment performance level is already above the EU target level for 2030. Ireland demonstrates the highest level of overeducation of countries in the EU and UK, with over 30% of full-time employees defined as overeducated for their occupational mode.

Our education system is now underperforming, and declining, relative to peer countries. The OECD economic survey for Ireland in 2020 notes that the skills of Irish adults are below the OECD average, literacy skills are close to the OECD average, and numeracy and problem-solving skills were significantly lower than the average for all ages.

On the expansion of apprenticeships, our membership remains concerned at the slow pace of development in craft and new generation apprenticeships. We believe that Ireland has overpromoted academic learning at the expense of technological and skills learning. The disparity between pre- and post-2016 apprenticeships is unacceptable. Analysis by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform confirms low levels of take-up in post-2016 apprenticeships. The €2,000 grant per apprentice per year is inadequate to cover employer costs.

Regarding access, diversity, inclusion and digital learning, the entry levels to be eligible for support are very low, so middle-income families struggle to pay college costs. Child benefit ending at 18 for those still in full-time education does not give many parents the opportunity to save for college fees. Regarding lifelong learning, progression pathways and continuous professional development, ISME has long acknowledged the skills shortfalls among the owners and managers in indigenous businesses.

The National Competitiveness and Productivity Council notes that productivity of foreign multinationals is increasing in Ireland, while that of domestic firms is declining. ISME has lobbied for the establishment of a QQI level 6 program called the "blue cert" to close the main knowledge gaps among small and medium enterprises. We believe PAYE and capital gains tax incentives should be used to encourage uptake in this blue cert. Training in lean six sigma, which would form part of our blue cert programme, should be deemed essential for most manufacturing, production and service businesses.

Regarding research, innovation and engagement, use of the research and development tax credit and the knowledge development box among SMEs is effectively non-existent. These schemes are written with rules appropriate to quoted multinationals, not domestic SMEs. Research and development expenditure in Ireland is grossly overconcentrated, to the tune of 66%, in large companies which make up only 0.3% of businesses.

Clusters are a great way of building engagement and harnessing innovation. ISME and similar organisations are willing to help, but need assistance in meeting the administrative burden. We would like the technological universities to be prioritised for expenditure on biogenics, renewables, recycling systems, rainwater recovery, and so on, and for providing technical training for businesses in mechanical and electrical areas, and about the Internet of things. Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft provides a useable model for this and already has a footprint in Dublin.

Regarding mental health and well-being supports, we are concerned about the decline in mental health among SME owners. We encourage those businesses which cannot provide well-being supports internally to use external professional providers.

Dr. Emer Smyth

I am delighted to address the committee on behalf of the ESRI. I would like to highlight a number of key issues relating to access to higher education, its funding model and the need for mental health supports for students. Recent years have seen a significant increase in participation in higher education, but inequalities by social background remain in the proportion entering higher education, attending university and accessing certain fields of study such as medicine and finance. ESRI research indicates that this inequality is largely a result of differences in examination performance at junior and leaving certificate levels. Ensuring equality of access is predicated on the provision of supports much earlier in the school career, rather than just at the point of the Central Applications Office application process. Access to adequate school-based guidance is also crucial. All students rely heavily on their parents’ advice in educational decision-making, but parents from more disadvantaged backgrounds do not have the insider knowledge of higher education to assist their children in navigating entry. As a result, young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are more reliant on their teachers, tutors and year heads for advice and guidance. This highlights the importance of adequate funding for a whole-school guidance approach from an early stage of second level education.

Financial issues play a significant role too. Maintenance costs emerge as a more important potential barrier to participation than fees but have not featured significantly on the policy agenda. ESRI research has shown that student maintenance grant levels have fallen far below other comparators such as unemployment payments or average income, leaving students to rely heavily on part-time employment and direct and indirect support from their families. This poses challenges for those from low-income families and for students trying to balance working and studying. Further, young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to base their choice of higher education institution on being able to live in the parental home, potentially limiting their horizons.

Any future funding model for higher education will need to address both the sustainability of funding for institutions and the level of supports for students themselves. In Ireland, there is a significant wage premium attached to having a degree, higher than in most OECD countries, so there is a case that graduates should make a contribution to the costs of their education. Colleagues at Maynooth University have concluded that an income-contingent loan system would be more equitable than the current system by requiring repayment from the more advantaged groups who access higher education and by not recouping payment from graduates until they reach a certain income threshold. Such a system would need to maintain or even increase student grants for more disadvantaged groups and set these at an adequate level to meet their needs.

My final point relates to the need for mental health supports for young adults in the wake of the pandemic. The Growing Up in Ireland study reveals a significant increase in the proportion classified as depressed among men and women. In December 2020, 31% of 22-year-old men and 55% of 22-year-old women were over the depression threshold, which is a stark finding. The disruption to higher education played a part in this, with over half of students finding it hard to study during the pandemic. Mental health difficulties were reduced where students had regular contact with, and support from, their institutions. These results highlight the importance of accelerated roll-out of high-quality broadband, and of support for higher education institutions in incorporating remote learning, feedback and assessment into existing courses. The scale of the mental health difficulties found highlights the need for community-based and institution-based supports for students as a matter of urgency. I thank the committee and look forward to discussing these issues later.

Dr. Niall Kennedy

I thank the committee for the invitation. I am speaking on behalf of a new campaigning organisation, the Irish Precarity Network. Since 2018, I have been employed in Trinity College Dublin as a French lecturer. For the first two years, I was paid hourly. I received a flat fee per class, which was supposed to cover all preparation and marking time.

I had no pension contributions or any right to sick pay. During those years, however, I taught the same number of classes as my permanently employed colleagues. The Cush report of 2016 envisaged that an hourly-paid arrangement should only be used for occasional visiting lecturers teaching on highly specialised modules to fulfil a specific need. Much of my teaching was on core modules, however, which were taken by every student in our department. The need for this teaching was ongoing and predictable but my salary and my contract were neither ongoing nor predictable.

I taught more than 200 students per year and each of them paid at least €3,000; the biggest financial contribution of students in any EU country. Yet, as an hourly-paid lecturer and despite being qualified to PhD level, I made less than €7,000 in a given year. The starting salary for a full-time lecturer at Trinity College Dublin is €36,369.

Since 2020, I have been on a series of temporary contracts which give me somewhat better terms but this June, in just a few months, when my current contract expires, I will again be unemployed, as has happened to me every year for each of the past five years. I hope to return to work in the sector in September but there is no guarantee I will be offered another contract either by Trinity College Dublin or anywhere else. I am 40 years old. I live in Dublin; a city with very high rents and cost of living. I exist in constant insecurity and worry about the future.

My situation is very common. Across Irish higher education institutions, precarious employment practices are now the norm. As members will read in our group’s submission to this committee, 50% of teaching and lecturing staff in Ireland are either part-time or on a temporary contract. This equates to approximately 13,000 lecturing staff in a given year. According to the Irish Federation of University Teachers, IFUT, the rates of precarious employment in Irish academia are worse than for any other branch of the public service. According to recent research, just under half of all precarious workers in higher education earn a salary that keeps them below the poverty line in Ireland. This includes up to 77% of hourly-paid staff. Extra and unpaid work is commonly reported, for example, the increasing burden related to the pastoral care of students. Precarious academics frequently have to rely on social welfare during periods of unemployment, such as the summer months. One branch of the Government is, therefore, subsidising another branch of the Government to offer these very low wages. Precarious academics have very few of the entitlements, benefits or other forms of workplace protection offered to those on permanent full-term contracts.

It is important to stress that this is not a short-term situation. These precarious staff have no obvious career progression nor any route out of precarity since university management now replaces retiring permanent lecturers with still more hourly-paid positions. Many precarious workers have endured these conditions for a decade or more. According to our research, the average is 7.1 years for women and 5.7 years for men. This also means, therefore, that significant gender and racial imbalances are created by a reliance on precarious labour. Some studies have shown that up to two thirds of precarious academics are women and they make up most of the extreme cases. No institution that relies heavily on precarious work can claim to support gender or racial equality.

This situation impacts heavily on research and teaching. Precarious staff are not paid for their research and receive no paid time off or financial support towards their expenses from institutions. The very high turnover of precarious staff within institutions - a situation intended to prevent them from qualifying for a contract of indefinite duration - has a significant impact on teaching quality too since these lecturers must constantly learn new material for new groups of students in new institutions.

While there is no doubt that Government funding of universities has been significantly reduced, we believe that the universities should also be held to account for their own choices and spending priorities. Significant expansion of the spend on managerial staff has meant that Irish higher education institutions now employ more non-academic than academic staff. They have found the money for significant campus developments but they have neglected the backbone of their core functions of teaching and research.

We offer some possible solutions. We believe that hourly-paid contracts should be banned. We believe universities should move away from a reliance on short-term contracts. The sector should no longer be subject to the employment control framework. The State should set targets for the percentage of staff in a university who are precarious and sanction those institutions which fail to meet them. For the past 15 years and more, the Irish State has stood by and allowed the ruthless and devastating exploitation of these workers employed in an Irish public service. It is time for this to end. I am calling on this committee to exercise its oversight function and ensure that a strategy to end precarious employment is at the heart of this funding Bill. Go raibh míle maith agaibh.

Our first member up today is Deputy Ó Laoghaire, who has eight minutes.

With the number of speakers, I am not sure I will get through all my questions in eight minutes, never mind answers. In any event, I will do my best. The first thing I want to say, and I think the contribution made by Mr. Donohoe captures a fair bit of it, is that much of what we have been hearing in the last couple of meetings indicates that over the course of the last ten years or more, the higher and further education system has been forced to do so much more with less. It has now not only reached but gone beyond the point at which quality is suffering. There is no doubt that the situation is unsustainable. That manifests itself in many ways. Dr. Kennedy's point with regard to precarity is definitely a reflection of that fact as well.

I will put a question out there that is more from the research side of things. One of the policy issues we grapple with a lot is with regard to our under-resourced healthcare system, in many ways, in terms of various clinicians and psychologists in particular. Much of that comes back to the fact that we cannot magic up psychologists, physiotherapists and so on. One of the issues seems to be that to get into these positions and into doctor programmes, a person needs to acquire a certain amount of clinical experience. Dr. Younus might be able to take this point as well as the gentlemen from the IRC. Unless a person comes from money, it seems to be very difficult to acquire that clinical experience. It requires a person to undertake a lot of unpaid work, which is something people cannot afford to do, and that is a disincentive for people to going into those areas.

With regard to SFI and Dr. Seoighe, this idea of a national talent roadmap is interesting. What exactly would that involve? Obviously, people voluntarily take up positions or apply for streams of funding. Is it just about ensuring that the funding is in the right place and focused on the right areas? How exactly do we do that?

I thought the contribution from Mr. McDonnell was very thought-provoking although I did not agree with all of it. The point was made with regard to TUs. They can help us to tackle the shortfall in some of the technical areas we need to address. Having said that, I made the point recently that we have schools that send too many people to third level and schools that send too few. That is the case. Some of what we have to do is try to rebalance that because there are people being directed to third level who would be better served by apprenticeships. Mr. McDonnell might have a comment on that as well. One of the things we discussed were some of the disincentives for employers in taking on apprentices. Perhaps, instead of block leave, someone might have a one day per week type release.

My final question is for Dr. Smyth, who advanced the idea that students might be in a position to make a contribution later in their lives. Obviously, that has been well ventilated. Dr. Smyth addressed the equity of that from the ESRI's point of view but there is also a question as to the efficacy of it. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions published some research on this. One issue, whether a person can defer it until a later date, is that it provides a disincentive to students from lower income backgrounds.

Where it has been tried, there seem to be significant issues relating to bad debt, that is, debt that is never recouped, and whether, as a model, it can properly wash its face. I invite our guests to respond on those issues and thank them for attending.

Is the Deputy's question for one of our guests in particular?

I ask Dr. Younus to address the issue of people trying to gain clinical experience. It is particularly challenging for women who have young families and are trying to gain further experience and progress their careers.

Dr. Arjumand Younus

If one cannot pay the bills, one will not consider taking up unpaid labour. Much of the work to gain clinical experience is unpaid. I do not have a solution for this. It is a big problem, especially for those who have to pay for childcare. Childcare in this country is very expensive. There was a point when I was on a short-term contract as a post-doctoral researcher that all of my salary went towards childcare. I did not mind that because I was developing my career. I had the luxury of being able to do so because there was another salary coming in. Single mothers or mothers who are disadvantaged do not have that luxury, so they will never gain that clinical experience. This ties in with the core issue of childcare that Dr. Smyth raised. I have read some of her work on this issue. It is also tied in with higher education policies. The Government needs to sort out the issue of childcare in order to increase the number of female academics and incentivise people who wish to do research experience or clinical experience. It needs to provide more childcare subsidies or something like that. I do not have a proper solution but it is a very important issue to address if we want more women in the workforce.

Dr. Ciarán Seoighe

I will address the issue of the national talent roadmap. I thank the Deputy for the question. The idea is that we need to be focused as a country. We need to understand what skills are required so that we can then deliver against those skills. A recent example of the way we did this is the SFI centres for research training. We understood there was a big demand for data analytics skills. There was a view at one point that the demand was so high in the industry sector that we would never even get the PhD students but we developed these models to create industry-ready PhD graduates and they were in such demand that we were massively oversubscribed. The thinking is to try to understand what skills will be required in the years to come because developing those skills takes time. Working backwards, if we need a particular skill set in the marketplace at scale by 2030, we would have to start that planning process almost now. The roadmap is important because we are a small country and we need to be focused and targeted. It is about understanding where those skills gaps are and where the real impact will be and then targeting the programmes accordingly.

Dr. Arjumand Younus

I will add to that, though not from my experience in Women in Research Ireland. I am from a machine learning and data analytics background. I have a lot of experience with the centres of machine learning and so on. One area in which Ireland is lacking is that the humanities disciplines and medicine are not using data analysis as much as they ought to be. That is being done all over the world, such as in the US and even in South Korea. I recently spoke to a researcher from South Korea. It has programmes in political science departments and is hiring data analysts. I do not see much of that in Ireland. This is something that can end the precarity issue. There would be a need to teach people data analytics skills but that is not as difficult as it is made out to be.

Mr. Peter Brown

I will respond to the question on people from different backgrounds with different types of experience, such as clinical experience, coming into research. Traditionally, our research assessment has placed too much emphasis on relatively narrow metrics relating to the track record of the researcher but we are very much moving away from that now. The IRC is a signatory to the San Francisco declaration on research assessment, which basically states that the important thing is the quality of the research proposal and that we should not focus overly on narrow metrics relating to the track record of the researcher. There is a significant amount of work ongoing in this area within Ireland and the EU. A major project to create a fairer research assessment framework has just commenced and the IRC is a signatory to a coalition underpinning that. That will extend the emphasis in research assessment on different types of experience that people bring to the table, such as clinical experience or experience in industry or policy making. That will have a positive impact on supporting diversity.

As regards women in research, to be accepted to the IRC's post-doctoral fellowship programmes, for example, one needs to have completed one's PhD within a certain period. However, if the person had career breaks, breaks in work relating to having had children or other types of leave, we take account of that in applying that criterion. Those kinds of policies and practices help to support greater diversity in terms of who is coming into the research system.

Mr. Tony Donohoe

I will take up two of the questions asked by the Deputy. As regards his question on apprenticeships, I agree fully that one-day-a-week release is preferable to block release. It is probably more workable. As a general comment, there are still design flaws in the apprenticeship system. Mr. McDonnell referenced the €2,000 grant which is inadequate and paltry compared with the subsidies given for craft apprenticeships. The target of 10,000 apprenticeship registrations probably will be realised but more than 80% of them are still in the craft area. It is a major disappointment that less than 20% of registrations are on these new post-2016 apprenticeships that are applicable to other sectors of the economy. They are important and the model was good because they gave the opportunity to progress from a basic level 6 right up to a level 10 PhD. They were a tangible way of linking further education and higher education. Unfortunately, although the model was great, the reality has failed to deliver. I do not think it is fully about finance. The speed at which these apprenticeships have been developed and approved has not been what it ought to have been. I still think the model is worth pursuing but it has not really delivered.

As regards fees for third level and the Deputy's response to the comments of Dr. Smyth on income-contingent loans, we have been debating fees for a long time and, unfortunately, it has become a distraction from the total funding that is required by the system. I agree that income-contingent loans are the only workable solution. They are the most equitable solution because geography is much more of a determinant than finance when it comes to whether a person chooses to go to higher education. Just over 40% of students going to third level do not pay fees, so there are other motivating factors that are deeply entrenched in the social inequalities that exist. The OECD has stated that one cannot have a sustainable funding model that predominantly relies on the state. Government policy decides otherwise, so we probably need to move on from this debate, unfortunately. The most important thing is that we address the overall funding.

My apologies but I have to leave to attend a meeting at the Department at 12 noon. I thank our guests for their contributions.

I ask our guests to be as brief as possible in replying as there are seven of them and I want to give everybody an opportunity to contribute.

I thank the witnesses for coming before the committee and commend them on the opening statements they have prepared, which are very helpful. I will not be able to ask all of them questions. Dr. Kennedy's contribution has caused me most concern in terms of the precarity of lecturers in third level institutions. We all agree that the quality of teaching very much dictates the success of third level institutions. I have no doubt that the quality of teaching Dr. Kennedy provides is extremely high but I am concerned that the limited quantities of pay given to a significant number of lecturers will have an effect in terms of preventing people going into the sector. Is he telling the committee that had he been a permanent member of staff, he would have got a salary of €36,369 for the work he did but because he was a part-time employee, he got less than €7,000 per year? Surely, that will have a devastating impact on trying to attract people into the sector. Does it impact on people in their 20s who decide not to go into academia?

Dr. Niall Kennedy

For the first two years, when I was an paid hourly, my total take home pay was under €7,000. However, I taught the same number of classes as my permanent colleagues. I was doing the same amount of teaching for a very cheap rate. Now that I am on a temporary contract, I am no longer paid hourly and I get a little more than that - more than €20,000. However, I could name dozens of people in my institution who are on these hourly contracts. These people are often in their 30s as opposed to their 20s.

It is accurate to say that the starting salary is €36,369. That is meant to improve year on year but one does not see the same sort of progression for people who are paid hourly. In terms of the turnover, in my department alone, since I started in 2018, I can name 18 people who have delivered modules and many of them have PhDs or are PhD students. A large number of those have left the sector since 2018. There is a very high turnover.

Both Mr. Brown and Dr. Seoighe mentioned the importance of the relationship between research and teaching. I absolutely agree that high-quality teaching requires somebody with high-quality research skills. However, those of us who are on these temporary contracts are not paid a cent for our research. We are not even given support to go to conferences. We are not given any paid time off to research. If, however, we want to have any hope of getting permanent posts, we have to produce high-quality research that gets published in major journals or by major publishers or we have to attract one of the very small number of important grants. We are not given any financial support to do this almost impossible task.

Obviously, Government funding could always be increased. In that context, we are here to discuss the issue of funding of third level institutions. Are there reasons beyond the issue of Government funding that cause third level institutions to hire people on a part-time basis? I am sure it is not just Trinity College. Has Dr. Kennedy seen a greater incidence of it in the past number of years? What is his view as to what motivates this?

Dr. Niall Kennedy

The Deputy is absolutely right. It goes beyond Government funding because there has been significant spend on campus redevelopment, directors of global engagement and non-academic staff. I am not saying this is wasted money but it reflects priorities I question because institutions are relying on the fact that there will be an infinite pool of people who are qualified to teach and who they can get for these bargain basement rates. Frankly, we have to question the spending priorities of the institutions, as well as raising the issue of Government funding. That is what I hope to do.

Is that problem unique to humanities? Dr. Kennedy lectures in French. Is it also systemic in STEM subjects?

Dr. Arjumand Younus

It is not as severe in STEM subjects as humanities, but it is there. I did my PhD in computer science, and I could not secure an academic permanent contract. I never wanted to move to industry. I wanted to stay in academia. I love teaching. However, someone has to pay the bills and that is why I moved to industry just last year. This problem of hourly-paid contracts is there in STEM subjects in UCD and TCD. Although, every year, one sees some permanent positions advertised, the problem is the boxes that one has to tick to get into that puts researchers such as myself at a significant disadvantage. I would not have so many publications because of my short-term contracts. Postdocs are just two years and they are there in order that one develops one publication and teaching profile. UCD does not give postdoc teaching contracts anymore which is the right call. Hourly-paid lecturers, as Dr. Kennedy said, do not get a penny for research. How does one expect someone who will apply to a permanent position to tick all the boxes when one does not give that person the adequate supports to do so? That is a big problem.

Does Dr. Younus believe that too much money is being invested by third level institutions in administration, as opposed to core teaching?

Dr. Arjumand Younus

Yes. I recently went to UCD where I not been for a year because I have changed jobs. I saw all these lovely campus accommodation buildings being built and I read that it is not to solve the housing crisis of students. The rents are so high that very few students take up that accommodation. Many of the international students are still looking for accommodation outside the university. What is the point of spending so much on UCD accommodation, when nobody will take it? It is a capitalist model that-----

I was asking specifically about administration staff. There seems to be a considerable number of administration staff-----

Dr. Arjumand Younus

There is.

-----as opposed to academic staff. Is that an issue?

Dr. Arjumand Younus

I am not in a position to say whether that is an issue.

Dr. Arjumand Younus

More data is needed on this stuff. There is no research on that which can tell us more but it seems to be so.

I thank Dr. Younus. There appears to be a significant correlation between disposable income and having a third level degree. It does not mean that everyone who has a third level degree has a high level of disposable income but, in general, people who have a high level of disposable income have a third level degree. Does that support the proposal Dr. Smyth has put forward here which was also the third option in the Cassells report? It recommended that one come back to try to get people to repay moneys they owed to the State, as a result of receiving an education, after they earn above a certain threshold?

Dr. Emer Smyth

There is a very high wage premium in Ireland, despite what we have heard from our colleagues about precarity, to a third level degree. For every €1,000 someone with a leaving certificate qualification earns, a university graduate will earn €1,700. That is among people in their mid-20s to mid-30s. We know there are social returns, about which we have heard from our colleagues, and there are very high individual rates of return to investment in education. It would seem fair, given the profile of students is more advantaged than those of the second level student population, that they should contribute to the cost of their education and help ensure sustainability as well as equity.

It seems ironic that the only place this premium does not appear to apply is for lecturers such as Dr. Kennedy or Dr. Younus. I see my time is up.

Does Deputy O'Callaghan want another two minutes?

Does anyone else want to come in on that issue? Mr. Donohoe spoke about the third option in the Cassells report. Why does he think it has not been-----

Mr. Tony Donohoe

It is politically toxic. That is why it has not been implemented. Politics are trumping policy here. It has been debated and has been the subject of significant lobbying. Objectively, if one looks at the OECD, World Bank, etc., especially with the high progression rates to third level education we have, that kind of funding model is required. It has to be a three-legged stool. If it is to be sustainable, it cannot just be the State because it will go up and down as the economic cycle goes up and down.

It is challenging in terms of design but the principle remains.

I thank the witnesses for their opening statements and contributions. I am balancing a couple of committees, but I have read all of the statements and I was keeping an eye on this meeting.

It is fair to say Ireland probably has a greater number of SMEs than other countries. When I spoke about this previously, I noted that 1 million people are employed by SMEs. Do the witnesses feel that the third level sector represents that emphasis we have on a different kind of model of employment compared with other parts of the world?

I have served on údarás in the National University of Ireland Galway. It is interesting that we do not have precarious workers represented at the board level of universities. It is a very interesting point. Dr. Younus and Dr. Kennedy mentioned the kind of precarious nature of the work that there is now in third level, yet it is not represented when it comes to the management structure of universities. How does that play out? Are we embedding it because we do not have that representative nature?

I had put in the suggestion to have Dr. Younus at this meeting so we could have women in research represented while we were going through these issues, which is very important. I would love to have more information from Dr. Younus around that lack of representation of women at research level. Is there a funding deficit and is there something we need to be doing funding-wise? It seems to me that what is coming up in these statements is that it is funding but it is also representation, and then it is the long-term benefits. I wanted to hit on those few points.

Mr. Neil McDonnell

In regard to where SMEs fit into this, our view is that the education system does not adequately interact with the SME body. Probably the largest part of the blame for that would rely on what we see as an overemphasis on the academic and an under-emphasis on the technical. To humanise that, I was at a presentation a couple of years ago where Christoph Mueller, the ex-chief executive of Aer Lingus, was speaking. His entry into business was as a German Army conscript and he became a welder as part of his technical education there. He then did an MBA and then went into business consultancy, and he has been running airlines ever since. I do not think that career model would be emulated here because the technical and the academic are so divorced in Ireland, yet that is what SMEs want. They want people who have a technical competence. That is not to underplay technical versus academic education. If we look at the top ten universities in the world, Caltech and MIT are never out of the top ten and their emphasis is always on the technological while, of course, they are universities. I would not like what I said earlier to sound like a critique of the technological universities but we do not see that emphasis on the technological as sufficient so far. Hopefully, that answers the question.

That is very helpful and interesting observation regarding MIT. We have a different model here, and that is what I was trying to get to. When we look at our workforce of 1 million in SMEs, are the two joined up enough? Mr. McDonnell is really saying “No.”

Dr. Niall Kennedy

I thank Senator O'Reilly for the questions. I want to make reference to the submission we gave to the committee, which references some recent published research by, for example, Dr. Theresa O'Keefe, who is a member of our group, with Dr. Aline Courtois. That has interviews with a number of precariously employed workers in Ireland. Two things are very striking. First, there is this feeling of being absolutely invisible with regard to permanent colleagues, with regard to their own research and, as the Senator said, in the governance of institutions and having their concerns not taken account of. Second, there is also the great fear of speaking up because if people speak up about poor conditions, they are not given more work, or at least that is the fear that people have. That comes up again and again in the interviews. Perhaps I am taking a risk by being here today, but that is one big reason. Precarity produces a very disciplined workforce and that is one of the reasons it is very popular in institutions.

Dr. Arjumand Younus

With regard to women, there have been some steps recently which I appreciate. I mentioned the female university presidents, of whom we now have four. However, we were the last country in the EU to do that, which is a disappointment.

With regard to funding, the Minister, Deputy Harris, last year announced a call in regard to developing these funded investigators in universities, with four-year funding for them to hire a PhD or post-doctoral researcher. It said that female academics are encouraged. However, is just adding that addendum or adding that line at the end of funding calls enough or do we need female-only funding? I know that would be somewhat controversial to do because it is not about gender, it is about merit. However, we cannot just discredit all of those women academics who are leaving academic spaces. It is a huge brain drain for the workforce and we will never know the quality of those female academics if we do not support them fully. Let us face it. We will have to support our women workforce more because childcare and everything else is their responsibility. That is why I am emphasising a holistic model rather than just a few patches.

I thank everybody for coming in today and for being very honest. I appreciate the honesty in the room today. I am very glad that Dr. Kennedy presented to us today around contracts. In some cases, a university such as Maynooth might get in a member of the Traveller community to give a lecture to a class and it is a one-off. I agree about those kinds of payments, but people will not be living off one hour of classes and they do not know where they will be in six months. That is inappropriate. We have to work together as a committee to get basic working rights because it is not just about education but about working rights as well.

I have a general question for all of the witnesses. We have been on the subject of the funding of higher and further education for the last while. Without repeating anything that I have said in the past, how do we future proof our higher and further education system? I would appreciate a brief answer. In response to Senator Pauline O'Reilly, Dr. Younus said it is about merit but it is also about investing in women and giving women a hand up, not a handout. In many cases, we see that women can do the jobs but they just do not get the support they need to be able to be successful.

One of my friends is a Traveller woman and she has been doing a doctorate for many years as a single parent despite the cost of rent and the cost of living in Ireland for ethnic minority women. One has to be from an ethnic minority group to really understand the level of inequality and the level of challenges that ethnic minority women face.

You are at an even greater disadvantage when you are a woman from an ethnic minority group. What are conditions like for women from ethnic minority groups? The witnesses can give their personal experience of the working conditions for men and women in research. How can we future-proof third level, and higher and further education? I have not heard the answer for that or we have not heard solutions and I would be grateful to hear the opinions of the witnesses.

Dr. Arjumand Younus

Women in Research Ireland has six committee members of whom two are migrant women, namely, me and the other co-director, who is from Brazil. This situation happened last year because of the support of the previous founding members. When we discussed among ourselves who should appear before the committee today, I was reluctant because I felt that I did not have the confidence. In summary, that is what being a migrant women is like in Ireland and elsewhere in research and upper levels. My co-director then advised me that people will be very happy to see a person from an ethnic minority background here. Her words gave me enough confidence to agree to appear. In my experience, we keep doubting ourselves because we do not see similar faces in these spaces. There are just two minority women in the entire computer science department in UCD that includes ten assistant professors and professors. There are fewer women and even fewer ethnic minority women so that speaks a lot. I do not know what the situation is like in other western countries but I know that there are a lot of female academics in the US. Ireland has a lot of work to do but it has made a good start and that is why I feel very happy to be here.

I thank the Senator for her question. As an ethnic minority, one must be in that seat to face it. Although I have a permanent position in industry, I submit applications for posts as an assistant professor or lecturer. One only needs a name to do a search on Google and discover all sorts of information about an individual. Sometimes I question myself about whether I have been turned down for a position because I wear a headscarf and that is a situation about which we all need to ask ourselves.

Even though I am a Senator, I sometimes experience self-doubt. While women are marked on merit, one of my female friends who has a doctorate, and I will not mention her name in case she criticises me for identifying her, has said it feels as though we cannot step outside boxes without being afraid of being dismissed or not having a job. How do we get more women and women from ethnic minority groups to undertake apprenticeships? I would appreciate answers to my questions on future-proofing and apprenticeships.

Dr. Emer Smyth

I will address the remarks made about future-proofing. First, we need a sustainable model of funding for higher and further education. We have talked about some of those issues and the potential for a contribution from graduates.

Second, we need to make sure that students and staff are representative of Irish society in terms of gender, social background, ethnicity and disability status.

Third, we need to ensure that there is enough flexibility to respond to the needs of the labour market and as new skills are required. We also need flexibility in how we provide higher education. We saw a very swift pivot to online provision during the pandemic. There are a lot of mature students who would benefit from more access to distance learning and more flexible forms of learning because there has been a decline in the number of mature students over the last few years, which is concerning.

The female apprenticeship issue has been ongoing. The gendering of occupations is built in from very early on. We have done research on the take up of woodwork and metalwork at school level and found that it is very hard to break gender stereotyping but schools could do more to help. It is also hard to be the pioneer and the first or only girl in a class. It is key that we consider gender and social background in encouraging different groups of young people to go into apprenticeships. It is very hard to break the views by parents and young people that an apprenticeship is a second-best opportunity.

Dr. Niall Kennedy

On the future-proofing issue, from the point of view of precarious workers I would like to see some real thought put into career paths for people who are on temporary contracts. In other words, what is their route out of precarity. Let us not have people sit for a decade or more and there are so many examples of that in this halfway house.

On the issue of women, I reiterate that according to our published research up to two thirds of precarious academics are women. So this situation always weighs far more heavily on women and on ethnic minorities. In my view, any institution or Government that relies heavily on precarious employment cannot say that they support gender or racial equality because those are just empty words if one's actions say a different thing.

Dr. Emer Smyth

I agree 100%.

Dr. Ciarán Seoighe

The Senator said that women need a hand up instead of a handout. In terms of correcting gender imbalance, small simple things done in the right way can have a large impact and we have seen that in some of our calls, for example, reviewers being given bias training. It is about experts looking at the language in the call that might be inadvertently putting people off the call and preventing applications. There are other aspects where, with all things being equal, we then advantage the women first and put them at the top of the list. The merit is still exactly the same but with ceteris paribus or all else being equal, we have seen a doubling in the impact over the past couple of years. We experiment with things and employ strategies to improve the situation. Some work and some do not but the ones that work sometimes can have a really big impact for small changes.

Future-proofing is very much about recognising talent and having the right talent in the right place at the right time. That is really what this is going to be about.

I thank all of the witnesses for their very interesting opening statements. I thank Dr. Kennedy for being here and it is an absolute shameful disgrace that somebody in his position is at risk merely by appearing before an Oireachtas committee to tell the truth about how things are, which is a shame on a lot of Dáileanna, not just on successive Governments. To be in a position like that, where there are so many PhD students and workers, requires collusion within the system. People must stand up and speak out but the answer is not student fees or loans. We must dig much deeper within ourselves to find the answers to why such a situation has been allowed to happen.

I have a number of questions, the first being on the Higher Education Authority Bill. What specifically needs to be done through the Bill? The Bill will be an opportunity we will not have presented to us again to address some of these issues and to make funding conditional on not allowing the absolutely abhorrent situation to continue. If we do not achieve these aims, we will have all failed.

I want to give the delegates an opportunity to talk a little more about the capitalist model. I am greatly concerned that the funding model route we are going down is the capitalist route. I see different things creeping in that I do not have time to discuss today but that really need to be addressed.

On loans, we have not said that although there are social returns and returns to individuals and employers that need to be balanced out, there are billions of unpaid student loans internationally. There is a huge administrative burden associated with this. Most of these loans end up being written off. In thinking further about the student loan model, I am absolutely against it. Associating education — such a key public good — with debt rather than investment requires a deeper analysis. Many grants are replaced with loans. I would not like this committee to go down the route of thinking student loans are the panacea for so many things that need to be addressed.

Could Mr. Donohoe give his view on the measurement of the risk to the economy if we do not address immediately the chronic underfunding in the higher education system? I want to ask the representatives of both ISME and IBEC about the €817 million in the National Training Fund at the beginning of 2021. There is €817 million in unspent funds, yet we are here discussing the underfunding of higher education. The reserve is not designed to be countercyclical because of EU fiscal rules, but these rules were suspended during Covid. Therefore, there has been a window of opportunity to gain access to the reserve without a corresponding reduction in Exchequer funding. How do the guests feel about the fact that the reserve has been allowed to build up to €817 million and would reach €1.4 billion by 2025 if spending remained the same?

I have a question for Dr. Smyth on mental health, to which she referred. I am really concerned about this area. Money given during Covid was absolutely welcome. There is an illusion that there was extra funding this year when it was really funding from last year that was continued. While all this funding is very welcome, we do not have circumstances in which the third level institutes can employ the psychologists and avail of the mental health supports needed. We are buying these in on an ad hoc basis. That is not the way to address the severe mental health problems within third level institutes. If they are not addressed at that stage, it will have an impact on the wider economy and individuals. I am sorry for asking so many questions.

Mr. Neil McDonnell

I have two points. First, the issue concerning student loans is not one on which Mr. Donohoe of IBEC and I will co-ordinate. While ISME agrees with what Mr. Donohoe has said about the need for a student loan at some level, certainly on our side we would not be talking about anything that looks like the US system of student loans, for example, which the Deputy might be concerned about. It is something that puts an economic value on something that is exceedingly valuable to the individual. It solves the problem of how to allocate very valuable resources if some sort of economic value is not applied to them.

On the question of the NTF, the rate of expansion of the fund of late has been of concern to us. It will almost certainly break €1 billion this year. That needs to be spent on higher education. It must be spent on workplace learning as tertiary education. I do not mean this in any derogatory way but it should not be spent within academia. Rather, it needs to go to workplace learning, lifelong learning and continuous professional development. We have given one example concerning the blue cert. It relates to learning that we have very clearly identified as absent among the owners of small businesses. There are really significant levels of ignorance of health and safety law, labour law, the working time directive and payment-of-wages legislation. Knowledge of this very basic subject matter is absent among tens of thousands of small business owners. It is in this area that we should be spending the money, because it is the employers that are paying. It would be a huge mistake to subsume the funding under the wider education budget.

Mr. Tony Donohoe

I agree with everything Mr. McDonnell said about the NTF . I was never convinced of the arguments around the EU fiscal rules at the time either. The money is unspent money that was collected from employers to be spent on upskilling in the workplace. That is how it should be used. There are many really good programmes - Skillnet, for example, is an employer-led upskilling programme — that are underfunded, yet the money is still sitting in the fund. It does not make any sense to me.

On the student loan model, it is important that we get back to first principles on this. Anybody with the motivation and aptitude to pursue higher education or, indeed, further education should be enabled to do so. That is the starting point. There should be a grant system that supports people. It is not an issue of fees alone; it is also about the associated costs. We have got the worst of both worlds now. We have got the €3,000 contribution from half the student population or, more accurately, their families. Particularly if a family has more than one child going to third level, the contribution does not cover the costs. We have an underfunded system, so we have got the worst of both worlds. I do not think the system can be totally funded by the State. A way of ensuring industry involvement, benefactor investment and research investment is to have excellent institutions.

That brings me on to the specific question on the measurement of risk. One cannot put numbers on this. There are some contestable aspects such as the rankings. People can quite cogently argue against them but they exist nevertheless and can damage our reputation. When companies look at the education profile of Ireland, they see we have a high progression rate to higher education, which is great, but our institutions are not performing well. One of the key metrics of performance is the staff–student ratio. If the ratio has increased from what I think was 17:1 to 21:1, it is another metric to be considered. None of these metrics are perfect but they build a picture over time. This matter is not like a crisis in the health sector, for example. It does not capture the headlines like trolley numbers and waiting lists but it is no less invidious. It just takes longer for the results of underinvestment to be shown.

Dr. Emer Smyth

Mr. Donohoe has covered the student loan issue very well, so I will not spend time on it. On the mental health issue, I agree it is not a matter of ad hoc supports. Within institutions we need embedded supports, from broad-brush supports for many to more intensive supports for the few who need them. However, there are broader issues concerning child, adolescent and adult community mental health services and underfunding.

The Sharing the Vision mental health policy has a lovely vision of covering the spectrum of supports but that requires very significant investment. I would have very grave concerns, given the patterns we saw in the Growing Up in Ireland study, that those young people will experience scarring effects that will predispose them to mental health difficulties going forward. That will have an impact on their educational and employment outcomes, as well as their health and well-being. It is a matter of urgency when we see that more than half of 22-year-old women are experiencing difficulties above the depression threshold. That is very concerning.

Dr. Niall Kennedy

I thank the Deputy for her comments in the Dáil on this issue of precarity. She is one of the few people who asks the right questions. However, when I read the Minister's answers to her, I see that often he says it is up to institutions to set their own priorities. Yet, when we ask the institutions - as their staff we do not have much of a voice - they often say that the Government is not giving them any money. I detect a passing of the buck, back and forth. That is a major problem the committee should address.

The Deputy is absolutely right in terms of solutions. Built into this forthcoming Bill there should be targets for a drawing down of precarity overall. We should also go back to the Cush report which said that core modules, for which there is an ongoing need every year, should not be taught by people who are paid hourly. Today they are and that is happening, as far as I know, in every institution in Ireland. Conditionality in this mechanism should be built into the Bill.

Thank you. Senator Malcolm Byrne is next.

I thank all of our witnesses for their evidence thus far. The primary purpose of these meetings is to discuss the future funding of higher education and in that context, I want to go into a number of issues. One of my key concerns is access and ensuring access for everybody at different levels within the system. My first question relates to decisions around priorities. I ask each of our witnesses to give me a succinct answer to my question and then I will come back to them after that. In the context of the Government's priority to increase access, should it consider, as the Minister is proposing, cutting student fees or should priority be given to the reform of the SUSI grant system? In an ideal world, we would look at both but I ask each witness to indicate, in a 15-second answer, whether the priority should be to cut student fees or to reform the SUSI grant system. I will start with my former colleague, Mr. Peter Brown.

Mr. Peter Brown

I thank the Senator for his question. As a research funder, the funding that we provide to awardees covers fees so the IRC does not have a view on that. On the SUSI grants, it is very important, given that PhDs are full-time students, that the SUSI grants are open to PhD candidates who may be of limited means and who may face barriers to participating in a PhD programme or acquiring a PhD qualification by reason of income constraints. It is very important that postgraduate students are included in the criteria for SUSI grants and can access those grants.

I am conscious of time constraints so I will ask the witnesses, from left to right, to make their choice, starting with Dr. Seoighe.

Dr. Ciarán Seoighe

The 15-second answer is similar to Mr. Brown's answer. We also put the fees in but we know that the PhD stipend is a real issue so if there was an option to use the fees instead for the PhD stipend, to increase that and bring it closer to the cost of living, that would be a real benefit to PhD students.

Dr. Arjumand Younus

I agree with Mr. Brown's answer too. Just recently, many PhD students contacted me to raise this issue. It is not the primary focus of WIRI but it is a major issue.

I note that all three witnesses have slightly avoided answering my question. I am going to ask Mr. Donohoe directly-----

Mr. Tony Donohoe

Directly, unambiguously, I would say do not cut the student contribution but rather look at any anomalies in the grant system.

Mr. Neil McDonnell

Retain fees, reform grants and, if necessary, move to a loan system that has forgiveness built in, where necessary.

Dr. Emer Smyth

We need to increase grant levels. Initially when they were introduced in the early 1970s, they were pitched at the same level as means-tested unemployment payments. Now, unemployment payments are more than three times higher than grant levels. In the context of the increasing costs of living, particularly accommodation costs, it is a heavy burden for low-income families.

Dr. Niall Kennedy

My organisation does not have a position on this question but personally, as a teacher, I have students who commute from Carlow to Dublin every day and the way to solve that is to increase the grants.

My next question is for Dr. Smyth because I know the ESRI has done a lot of work on this. One of our objectives is to ensure we have an adequately funded higher education system that does not inhibit access in any way. What measures do we need to take, apart from the overall funding issue?

Dr. Emer Smyth

We need to look at financial incentives for young people. We need to increase the maintenance grant to adequately cover the costs of education so they are not left to rely on parental support. More importantly, we need to look at all of the steps along the way in their educational career, at performance levels and at guidance within the school system. We have seen an improvement in the transition to higher education from students who attended DEIS schools but there is still a massive gap there. We really need to look at increasing equity for disadvantaged students who attend DEIS schools but also those who do not. We really need to be putting in supports around teaching and learning and also guidance. We also need to consider a scale of funding for DEIS schools that reflects the complexity of needs there because the current funding does not bridge the gap. These are fundamental measures that are needed if we are to increase access. We also need to look at the mature student issue as well. As I mentioned, there has been a decline in the representation of mature students which is concerning.

I agree with the comments by a number of those on the research side with regard to precarity but I do not want to go into that now. I have submitted a Commencement matter for discussion in the Seanad this afternoon on the question of researcher pensions. Do the IRC, SFI or the researcher representatives want to comment on that question?

Dr. Ciarán Seoighe

The simple answer is that we follow Department of Public Expenditure and Reform guidelines. We currently add that 20% payment.

There is a problem that some researchers, particularly in the TU sector, have been excluded from the pension-----

Dr. Ciarán Seoighe

That needs to be clarified, in terms of exactly what happened there.

The Senator is broadening the discussion a little-----

I appreciate that but-----

As he is my colleague in the county, I have restrained myself from commenting but-----

I appreciate that but the issue of funding includes the pension question and, dare I say it, a number of my colleagues have drifted beyond the core issue, which is the critical question of funding.

Not as much as you have, Senator.

To go back to the overall question, Mr. Donohoe mentioned that it is six years since the Cassells report was published and we are still waiting. Why does he think a decision has not been made yet?

Mr. Tony Donohoe

As I said to the Senator's colleague, it is politically toxic. That is a very easy answer but maybe the argument has not been made properly. There is a perception of student loans as some kind of commoditisation of education or as epitomising a neoliberal view of education. I was always much more confident arguing for a loan system in terms of equity because, as I said, if we go back to first principles, anybody who cannot afford it should be supported into higher education but those who can afford it should make a contribution. It is as simple as that. Maybe those of us who have been making this argument should argue it more from the perspective of social equity. I am quite disappointed to hear political leaders just taking this off the table without any real debate. I have heard a couple of members of the Government just dismissing it but it needs to be interrogated more.

As Mr. Donohoe will be aware, the Minister has floated the idea of cutting student fees. I have significant concerns about doing that, particularly if they are cut without the underlying funding question being addressed. If he does proceed, what is Mr. Donohoe's view on that? I will ask the other witness to respond to that too.

Mr. Tony Donohoe

We are looking at a 50% reduction per student in funding. The argument could have been made, though some of us would not have agreed, that after the financial crisis there were cutbacks and we made do with less. I spent many years saying we were at the tipping point in terms of quality impact. We are well beyond that tipping point now. I do not think we can afford to regress further. If that political decision is made, which would be short-sighted, that money has to be found somewhere else. When it comes to the competing demands for the public purse, higher education is not always at the table. It is a harder point to make.

I am conscious Dr. Smyth is nodding. It is interesting that we had representatives from the sector here last week, including from some technological universities and universities, who said we were coming close to the tipping point, while Mr. Donohoe says we have gone beyond it.

Mr. Tony Donohoe

Quality in higher education is a slippery concept. Quality of teaching and learning relates to precarity, of which we spoke today, access and excellence. It is how good the research is, at what level it is and at what level teaching and learning is. We have gone beyond the tipping point on that.

Dr. Emer Smyth

We got rid of fees before and it did not help equity. The only group that gained were foreign families. Working-class students did not benefit from the abolition of fees and the argument was made on equity grounds. We have strong evidence that it will not improve equity. What would improve equity is providing the financial support to make it there and the educational support to get to that point.

The Minister has floated the idea that we cut the €3,000 fee. No one is opposed to cutting fees if the necessary resources are put in place but from an economic point of view, what does Dr. Smyth foresee will happen?

Dr. Emer Smyth

It will leave a further hole in funding for higher education, have further implications for quality and provide no return in terms of equity. It is just a quick political win which may not be a political win. It was not for the Minister who got rid of fees before. No one gains.

Mr. Neil McDonnell

It is frustrating. None of us here are politicians so we are not exposed to the pressure members are to say and do popular things and get re-elected. We understand that but one of the interesting things the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has done is put up the website, Look at health alone. We will go into another committee talking about health tomorrow and our health expenditure has gone from €14 billion to nearly €21 billion, pandemic aside, without a return on outcomes for citizens.

I agree with everything said on this side. If a Minister is to propose the removal of a funding stream, it needs to be said upfront how it will be replaced. Please avoid doing the populist thing. We have done it before and we did not got any result out of it. If there is no return made by the user of a very valuable education service, the problems the committee has heard about from the teaching and learning side will get worse because universities will prioritise the low-hanging fruits of foreign students, student accommodation and so on instead of learning.

I was going to continue in the same vein as Senator Byrne.

On which issue?

That is okay.

I will put a different slant on it. For weeks we have listened to various groups, some advocating for free fees and some for greater contributions from business or whatever. I was a teacher in a DEIS school for 15 years and saw the benefits of various programmes run between DEIS and universities. Over the course of the week, I met a top executive in a large pharmaceutical company who came through the DEIS model. In that context, will the witnesses comment on sustaining some type of fee model while enhancing those supports to provide for people from disadvantaged or lower socioeconomic backgrounds? Where will we get the balance?

Dr. Emer Smyth

It is about supports further back, including supports for DEIS schools and for disadvantaged students in non-DEIS schools. Over half of those from disadvantaged backgrounds are not attending DEIS schools so are not getting support by virtue of their disadvantage. We need to look at increasing maintenance grants to a level that is adequate to allow students to be relatively independent of their parents and of the necessity in engage in long hours of term-time employment. That might mean we focus on a smaller group than those who currently receive grants, but that we do so with a greater level of intensity. I would consider a student loan systems for others. That would provide some contribution from them towards the cost of their education. The State will still play a role because the State benefits from higher education and its output but it needs to be made more sustainable by relying on contributions from those who benefit from a degree and a postgraduate degree.

Dr. Ciarán Seoighe

Sometimes, as well as the supports, it is about the awareness. Particularly in what we look after, STEM research and access, it is about building awareness from the early stages in all demographics that this opportunity and career are available to everybody. It is about engagement, and public engagement in particular. It starts with the parents as much as the schools and everywhere else when demonstrating that this is a career model and progression open to everyone. Building access and general public engagement is a core part of what we focus on doing. We often find people are not coming into the pipeline in the first place so we need to get people from all walks of life in Ireland into the pipeline and working through the system with adequate supports all the way along to ensure we do not have a leaky pipeline.

Mr. Tony Donohoe

This is all about choices. I agree on early interventions. A US academic, Heckman, said if you want to get the biggest bang for your buck in terms of investment in human capital, you put it into early childhood education and development and set the foundations for later in life. It is about targeted interventions. Those who can afford to pay for higher education should pay. We need to make our choices a bit better.

Dr. Niall Kennedy

I am sympathetic to some of the points made by Dr. Smyth, for example. What concerns me is the framing of this politically to suggest the benefits of higher education only accrue to individual students and they should pay. The problem with that is you lose sight of the benefit to society - the €9 gain for every euro spent, as somebody else said. For example, in little more than a decade England went from a situation where the maximum fee was £1,000 to one where the fee in 2010 was more than £9,000 for everybody, with no differentiation according on parental income. That is what I would be worried about if we had a political framing of this as being something the student should pay for because he or she gets all the benefits. We all get the benefits.

Mr. Tony Donohoe

To clear up any misconception, we are not saying it should be totally students. This should be, as I said earlier, a three-legged stool. It should be the State because it benefits, students because they benefit, and businesses because they benefit. If we rely on one leg, the stool will fall over. We can debate the balance of contributions and get into the design of the system, but the principle should remain that the State, the individual and business contribute.

My second question is in regard to student accommodation and the difficulties there. This debate has been had frequently.

I am from Cork city, and there is an acute problem there in the provision of student accommodation. From the witnesses' experience, what country or society does this well? It is clear that we are not doing well in providing student accommodation, particularly in our urban centres. Do they have any examples of other constituencies or jurisdictions where they do it well?

Mr. Neil McDonnell

This is certainly not an area of expertise. I would observe, however, given what we heard earlier about how college fees are being spent, that it would appear it is on putting up large blocks of student accommodation that may not be affordable. I understand that there are some barriers to use of that during the summer when the college of closed. If they want to make a book out of this sort of thing, then they should actually make a book and allow for more affordable use of that asset by students. There is very high demand for casual accommodation during the summer period, especially by young people in Ireland, so make use of and exploit it.

Does anybody else want to come in on that?

Dr. Emer Smyth

It is also not my area of expertise, but it is impossible to separate the student housing accommodation difficulties from the broader housing crisis. I do not think it can be solved as a sector-specific issue, broadly.

Before I call Senator Dolan, will Mr. Donohoe flesh out a little bit on that three-legged stool remark, following on from Deputy O'Sullivan?

Mr. Tony Donohoe

It was in response to the idea that in some ways we are looking at a US or a UK model, where eye-watering amounts of debt is built up for the individual. That is not what we are advocating. We are advocating cost-sharing for those sectors that actually benefit from it. This includes the State for social, cultural and economic reasons and it includes the individual, business and employers. We all know the pressure on the public purse, and if there is a system that relies on public finances to be in good shape, inevitably there will be these competing demands. Of its nature, higher education tends to come second or even third best. Health or social welfare will grab the headlines, then education and then within education, higher education. This concept of sustainability is the most important one that we should hang on to. What is the most sustainable model that will survive through different economic cycles? Those are the three legs.

I thank Mr. Donohoe for that.

I welcome all of our guests. We had fine presentations this morning. I thank them for their time. I might just direct a few questions as I go. We have eight minutes. If there is time at the end, anyone can join in.

I thank Dr. Seoighe. I would have a great knowledge of SFI and a great understanding and appreciation of what it is seeking to be delivered. The same is true of the IRC because I have worked in the research office in NUI Galway. In the context of the Irish Precarity Network, I must admit that it was my first time but I would have been of those precarious researchers - perhaps I am precarious now as well - in terms of the fact that I worked on Horizon 2020, as a sort of research project manager, on one of those awards in the college. I am very conscious that non-Exchequer funding drives the fact that we are able to offer that type of experience for researchers, postdocs and master's degree students that otherwise would not happen if we did not have that success with our principal investigators, PIs, in all of our colleges and third level institutions.

I am also conscious of the fact that it is not a way to have these continuous contracts non-stop, whereas when one can get an award, maybe for five years, one knows that one is hopefully in position for five years as a researcher or a master’s student. Though depending on the type of research as well, they are taken on at different times. It might be that the postdoctoral supervisor-type role is taken on first and the master’s student comes in perhaps later on if they are doing statistical work or things like this. There are different methods that colleges and PIs have to manage when they are looking at their workforce. I suppose this happens in many other industries as well. In some ways, the more successful we are at bringing in non-Exchequer funding at third level, the more crucial it is in terms of driving excellence. When we have excellence in this country in terms of research professorships and so on, then we will attract excellence from across the world to come to Ireland, which is what we want to see.

It is very nice to meet Dr. Seoighe. He spoke a little bit about the importance of doctoral level education, which has been crucial in terms of the Science Foundation Ireland funding model, and how that important that is important for Ireland and the world as a societies. In this model coming forward, how would he see that we could improve the opportunities for people who come out with PhDs? In other words, sometimes we have our PhDs coming out of our universities and they are perhaps not taken up immediately by industry. How do some of our more traditional universities get over that sort of hill that sometimes other universities are better able to navigate with perhaps more practical placements and so on?

I was very interested in the presentation by Dr. Younus. I am very much aware of the difficulty when it comes to women, particularly in the context of the short-term and temporary contracts. I would have been aware of the organisation Women in Technology and Science, which was, perhaps, previous to Women in Research Ireland. How does Dr. Younus see us supporting women with this model in a better way? For example, colleges now have developed more diversity recognition and have gender quality and diversity inclusion officers. Is that working? Does she have one or two examples of how she thinks it might improve? I know NUI Galway has done a huge body of work in terms rolling out the concerned framework related to sort of harassment type issues as well, that we, unfortunately, increasingly see at third level.

I thank Dr. Smyth from the ESRI. I would come from Ballinasloe, Roscommon and east Galway, and absolutely delighted because we would have seen debt funding coming out and delivering equality of opportunity for schools, particularly at post primary level and the importance of that in supporting students to access third level education. For example, the higher education access route, HEAR, and disability access route to education, DARE, programmes are sort of new, but there would be higher education and disability access. Can Dr. Smyth speak a little bit to that and what supports are coming? When we see that more than 240,000 students are accessing some form of delivering equality of opportunity supports, be it by means of smaller class sizes, more teaching supports or more supports when it comes to identifying career opportunities, be it further education and perhaps not going down a traditional educational model. On the precarity side, I would be very welcome to have Dr. Kennedy’s thoughts on this model as well if we have time for all of that. I apologise for taking up so much time.

Dr. Ciarán Seoighe

If I might start, I thank the Senator for her question on how we make PhDs world class. There is an onus on us to do that. We have looked at it quite carefully and spent much time understanding the PhD model, talking to the PhD students and meeting with them pre pandemic. One of the things we learned is that it is a bit like everything else: one cannot be what one cannot see. We found many of our PhDs were not as industry-ready as they needed to be. They were not as ready for that next evolution. It was very much a PhD model designed to create academics in the system. However, we recognise that the vast majority of PhDs go into industry. Many of us have been through that precarity model down through the years, myself included, so I know what it is like when you move across. In the traditional PhD training, one is not necessarily going to be industry-ready when going into industry. Some of the things we are looking at are cohort-based training, where one works with a cohort of other PhDs or peers, because it can be a lonely life sometimes for those working as an isolated PhD, and also industry being part of the training programme, where 12 weeks or so of the training is actually with industry partners who make the PhDs industry-ready. The whole aim here is to have the world’s best PhDs who are sort of able to command the kind of salaries here that they want and will attract the companies to be here, because that is what they come for. They come, and stay for the talent.

Dr. Ciarán Seoighe

That is exactly what we need to do. We are reinventing the PhD model and trying to make it as effective as it can be. We are looking to make sure that we have those industry partners involved and it is cohort driven. We are analysing all of the aspects how we make it accessible from an equality, diversity and inclusion perspective so that it is accessible to everybody.

The industry fellowship is another excellent programme whereby people can be brought into industry, do a certain project and engage as well. It is a great way for PhDs to get an opportunity to work in world-class industry.

Then vice versa, industry gets access to a world-class academic or researcher who has come from a from an excellent institution. I thank Dr. Seoighe. Would Dr. Younus care to comment?

Dr. Arjumand Younus

The Senator asked about gender equality initiatives in universities. I see a lot of training around bias, hiring committees and HR. As I said, however, there are not measures to build confidence in minorities and women that there should be. SFI has public engagement things but they should be more targeted to women, and ethnic minority women, so they know the options out there. Furthermore, I do not think that academic posts are enough. This is a problem around the world, not just Ireland. We need alternative career paths and academia should incorporate these in their training structures. For example, because I was in STEM, I had the option of moving to a research scientist role. In Ireland, industry does not have many of these roles and very few companies have it. For instance, I applied to Google. It was a software engineering role which I did not want; I wanted a research role. Even in the industry sector, we need to develop more of these roles in order that the PhDs can be integrated into the system. That could be something that IBEC, along with other employers and industry can think about.

That is excellent. Industry can forge a path but we forge paths, and drive change, in research. Research leads the way where industry sometimes sees what it is doing and thinks it might just take that wonderful pocket of researchers, together with that excellent principal investigator, PI, who did that research and bring them over to it. That is really important. On diversity, Galway is such a cosmopolitan city with nearly one in five and that is down to our university, the healthcare and the hospital that is there. There are many international researchers attending university there because of the research professorship programmes that are run there. It is crucial in bringing teams to Ireland.

Dr. Emer Smyth

The evaluation period was some years ago but it did show positive benefits of letting some students in on lower grades and points. There was some variation on implementation. We saw quite an increase in the proportion of young people from DEIS schools making the transition on foot of teacher-assessed grades.

That benefited students more.

Dr. Emer Smyth

That benefited students more. We need to be talking about targeting resources to those DEIS schools serving the most disadvantaged groups support students. At the moment, we do not identify the most deprived schools at secondary level in the way that we identify urban band 1 at primary level to provide them with the additional supports.

We would hope that the census this year will drive that change.

Dr. Emer Smyth

We need to provide them with academic supports but also socio-emotional supports because that feeds into mental health. Socio-emotional well-being, more broadly than mental health, is worse in urban DEIS schools.

And hopefully we can get the teachers to be involved. The Minister has come out with her review and report in the last hour. Hopefully there will be more about continuous assessment in the leaving certificate and more teacher involvement.

Dr. Niall Kennedy

Very little institutional level or national data exist on the outcomes for PhD students. That is a big problem because a PhD involves a significant opportunity cost and they are very expensive for those who do it. Whether it is science or arts and the humanities, you get a series of temporary contracts for researchers and there are no clear data on what they end up with. That is a major problem.

In the IRC and SFI there is a tracing of where students or postgraduates go. If that was done by all the universities it would be a great way to see how to improve the situation.

Dr. Niall Kennedy

The details are completely insufficient as far as we are aware.

Mr. Peter Brown

I agree with everything that Senator Dolan said. We need researchers to be able to see across the landscape where they fit in and that there is a set of predictable long-term funding schemes at different career stages that researchers can access. Tracking was mentioned. There is some good work going on under the auspices of the national framework for doctoral education. There is an advisory group there doing two pieces of work which I think would be valuable. One is a career tracking project to develop a greater insight into where PhDs are going post-completion. Another project being worked on is career profiling for people considering taking up a PhD to have more information on the kinds of roles and jobs both inside and outside of academia that a PhD gives access to. They are two important pieces of work that will help with this overall agenda.

I will call Deputy Conway-Walsh back in but I have a question for Dr. Kennedy first. He represents an organisation that covers Ireland and Northern Ireland. Are the circumstances in Northern Ireland similar to those he outlined today?

Dr. Niall Kennedy

Yes and throughout the UK. There are significant problems with precarity. Recently there has been a major strike throughout the UK by the University and College Union, UCU, first because of pension issues for academic rights but also because of precarity. The statistics are that about 50% of teaching in the Republic of Ireland is done by precarious workers. I do not have a figure specific to Northern Ireland but in the UK the figure is as bad or even worse.

Is headway being made in any jurisdiction in comparison with here?

Dr. Niall Kennedy

I would say that the situation in continental Europe might be a bit better than it is here but that in much of the English-speaking world, it is as bad or worse.

Where are we losing our talented staff to as a result of the situation here?

Dr. Niall Kennedy

Some go into university administration. Some go into industry, as we have said, and we have examples here. Others go into other professions such as the law. Some go abroad to try to find their academic careers in China and Dubai. I have thought about that myself.

Okay. No bother.

I am really conscious that as we discuss this here today, there are families who are absolutely crippled with the cost of trying to access third level education and there are other children in households who are doing without just so those students can cling on to the third level education that they are in or going to start in September. We really need to be mindful of that in how we approach this. It is absolutely not just fees. There are really hard-working people who are excluded from third level education and we need to be very careful of that. We need to look at the EU and lessons from other member states to see how they can afford to provide third level education. Rather than treating it as being populist to disagree with fees or loans, we need a full and thorough honest conversation around the whole thing.

I wish to ask about the current situation around the Ukrainian community who have been welcomed to the State, and rightly so, and what we need to do around third level education. In particular, what do we need to do around upskilling. There are a huge number of jobs available. The labour market has never been as good in that sense. What do we need to do to help the Ukrainian community to access the labour market? Is there a role for the regional skills forum, in particular?

The digital support to SMEs and others during Covid for getting business online and so on was rightly very welcome. I am a bit concerned that some businesses are online but they are not being given the supports they need to progress that and adapt it and for it to evolve to access markets as they need to. I am extremely conscious that businesses are really struggling in trying to address energy costs and other high costs that are escalating with inflation. I want to ask about the opportunities of the TUs, particularly in the area of research funding.

We know the small amount allocated heretofore and the small portion allocated to those entities that now make up TUs, particularly along the western seaboard. What resources are required for the TUs to catch up and access funding streams and research opportunities to level the playing field for access to research and development opportunities?

Dr. Ciarán Seoighe

I will address the question on what we are doing to assist Ukrainians and the question on the technological universities. With respect to displaced researchers from Ukraine, that is one group we are considering how we can best assist. Mr. Peter Brown from the IRC is here and we are working collaboratively with the council, colleagues from the Irish Universities Association, IUA, the Royal Irish Academy and the Health Research Board to answer that question. We are working with a group called Scholars at Risk based out of Maynooth. It understands better how we can best provide support. The point is to provide genuine supports that will be useful. The honest answer is we have a rough idea of how many people might need support and at which levels. We are not entirely clear yet how best to support these individuals but the broad plan is there would be a mentor or sponsor within our university system who would see how they could collaborate with those researchers, bring them into their laboratories and apply to the funding agencies to see if we can provide some supports. For now, we are working to see what is the best way we can provide some supports.

I am conscious that time is of the essence. We cannot afford to just let this be absorbed into third level institutions where it would have to through a whole ream of processes. A fast-tracking mechanism is needed.

Mr. Peter Brown

I would add the Department is working closely with the IUA on a one-stop-shop that will allow the system to connect with displaced researchers. That will be an important first step. Once that is set up, we can then begin to get a sense of where the needs are and how displaced researchers from Ukraine can be catered for.

What upskilling or cross-skilling will be required to meet the needs of the labour market?

Mr. Tony Donohoe

I will respond to the Deputy's question on the TUs with respect to research. It is right to wait to see what we are dealing with but it was encouraging to see young Ukrainian children in Irish schools. It just shows what is possible. Language is probably the most important element, although during this crisis I have been struck by the Ukrainians' level of proficiency in English. That is where I would target initially until we see what we are dealing with.

On research in the TUs, there is a successor to Innovation 2020. A new research strategy is currently being developed. We should look back on the programme for research in third level institutions, PRTL, which has been in place since 1998, the fifth cycle of which finished a number of years ago. That has successfully supported those doing PhDs and research in third level institutions. That model should be extended to the technological universities. We should explicitly, in terms of incentives, acknowledge the regional focus of the TUs. Mr. Neil McDonnell mentioned we need more applied research and that small firms do not draw down research funding. That is largely true. Some 70% of research funding goes to foreign direct investment, FDI, companies. We need to consider a model that encourages SMEs to engage with the technological universities. We know the best way of increasing research funding is to leverage industry investment. Industry investment in research has increased at a much faster rate than State research in higher education and it accounts for approximately 70% of total research funding in the State. Given the profile of our companies, many of which are knowledge intensive, we need to use that to leverage investment into HEIs and specifically the new TUs.

Dr. Ciarán Seoighe

Can I add a further brief comment in response to the Deputy's question on how to accelerate research opportunities for the technological universities?

Dr. Ciarán Seoighe

That is a pertinent question and something about which we have been exercised. One of the programmes we introduced is our TU partnership programme. The ability to apply for research is as much a cultural thing and a learning thing as it is anything else. There is an onus on the TUs to become much more research intensive. In our partnership model, we partner the technological universities with the universities that have long-standing experience of doing that and the idea is that knowledge will transfer across the TUs to help with leapfrogging the process a little.

I thank the witnesses for coming here today and for the wide-ranging discussion we have had. We had a large panel and it can be difficult to facilitate everybody. We had to curtail proceedings because another committee meeting is scheduled directly after this and we have allow time for the cleansing of the room. I also thank members for their contributions.

The joint committee adjourned at 1.27 p.m. until 11 a.m. on Tuesday, 5 April 2022.