I thank the Chair for the invitation. It is good the committee will be hearing from me and then directly afterwards from the USI, IUA and THEA because my experience of working on these issues around gender equality has very much been one of partnership right across the sector. I hope we can begin to knit together a full picture and range of views on these important issues. Before I begin I take the opportunity to commend formally the work of the Citizens’ Assembly on Gender Equality that culminated in the publication of a report containing 45 recommendations across eight themes. It was a significant moment in a long history of advocacy and public discourse around how we treat and value women and girls in this country and how we make real progress when it comes to the issue of gender equality.
I was especially heartened to see the inclusive parameters the assembly adopted for its work, for example by recognising violence against women as a gender justice issue. As members know, I have direct experience from my time as Minister for Health of the impact a citizens' assembly report can have and what follows when a report leaves the assembly and comes to the Oireachtas, which I think is exactly what the Chair is alluding to. It is a process that has served us very well in trying to make cross-party societal, social change on important issues. Particularly around the issue of reproductive rights and healthcare, it showed we can be very respectful in how we work to make progress. I am therefore excited another citizens' assembly has reported on an area of work of major importance and an all-party Oireachtas committee is now examining how to turn those recommendations into tangible action. Usually when one comes before a committee as a Minister, one is accounting for everything one is doing and that is right and proper. I very much see this engagement as a two-way flow where I and my Department outline to the committee what we are doing but we very much look forward to hearing members' views, seeing its report and seeing what more we can do. I look forward to working with the committee on that.
I wish to be clear at the outset that gender inequality is pervasive across society and we cannot silo or reduce our aims to achieve gender justice to one category or a range of narrow perspectives. We need a holistic, whole-of-government, whole-population approach if we are serious about making progress. While the assembly’s recommendations cut across many policy areas and very much highlight the need for a collective Government response, I am here to share with members the role my Department must play in advancing gender equality. I understand the committee has requested that this session primarily focus on recommendations 26 to 31, inclusive, regarding norms, stereotypes and education and I welcome that. However, as they are interrelated I will also address recommendations 28 to 30, inclusive, as my Department is also progressing work in these areas.
While my Department has policy responsibility for third level, we need to have an honest conversation here about how gender stereotypes and issues of equality roll through the entire education system. We need to link in across the three systems, namely, the primary, secondary and third levels. I feel very strongly about this. It would be dishonest of me to not be clear about how strongly I feel about the issue. There is really good work being done in the third-level sector around consent but it is just too late. It needs to happen much earlier. I know the committee will be engaging with my colleague, the Minister for Education. There is little point in talking about consent at third level, for example, if we do not have a comprehensive sexual education curriculum at primary and secondary level in an age-appropriate manner. It is with regret I say this is one of the key recommendations of the Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution that has not been substantially progressed yet. If we wait until our young people are aged 18 years and entering third level to educate them on consent, in many ways the damage can be done; certainly it can be more difficult to undo perceived norms at that stage. In any event, I understand a separate invitation has issued to my colleague, the Minister for Education. I very much look forward to working with her and her Department on any shared recommendations that arise from this committee's report.
A long-held aim of the education policy has been to ensure that everybody is afforded the opportunity to develop to their full potential in this country. Traditional gender norms and stereotypes can lead to adverse outcomes in terms of gender inequality, which can inhibit people from reaching their full potential and lead to less than desired outcomes. In the education sector this can manifest itself in subject choices in the school system which, in turn, can influence course choices at third level which can, in turn, determine future career paths.
The higher and further education sector can be an engine for economic growth, and an instrument to promote diversity and enhance social cohesion. I want to ensure that we create opportunities and support people to engage in education and training at every stage of their lives to learn, upskill, reskill and grow.
I propose to go through each of the relevant recommendations and update the committee on my Department's initiatives and work.
Recommendation 28 states:
All levels of the education system from pre-school to third level, led by the relevant Government Department, should:
(a) Ensure that initial education and continuing professional development for staff includes modules promoting gender awareness and gender-sensitive teaching methods.
(b) Monitor policies and practices - including school inspection and whole school evaluation through the lens of gender equality and report regularly on trends and outcomes by gender.
I would like to share with the committee some of our activities concerns gender awareness, and the monitoring of practices and policies in third level education.
On 15 March, I announced the second national review of gender equality. The review is being carried out by an expert group, on behalf of the Higher Education Authority, HEA. The review will assess the progress since the first review of its kind in 2016 and make recommendations to ensure that gender equality is amplified in higher education institutions. The expert group is expected to make five to ten high-level recommendations on how higher education institutions might enhance their equality policies, and their implementation of those policies, to support gender equality. I expect to be in a position to publish this report towards the end of this year.
Progress is continuing on the range of indicators included in the gender action plan for higher education and I will outline some examples. All higher education institutions have institutional gender action plans and now submit annual progress updates to the HEA. The HEA continues to publish the higher education institutional staff profiles by gender on an annual basis. New and additional gender-specific posts under the senior academic leadership initiative, SALI, was launched in 2019, and I am sure that colleagues will not mind me acknowledging the work on SALI done by the former Minister of State with responsibility for higher education, Mary Mitchell O'Connor. The initiative is very sensible but it was also a brave initiative at the time and I think that it was the right thing to do. I am delighted to say that to date 20 posts at senior academic level have been awarded to Irish HEIs under the first cycle of the initiative. During my time as Minister I am delighted to have been in a position to award a further ten posts so far under the second cycle of the initiative.
Higher education institutions that currently hold Athena SWAN Ireland awards are guided in their applications to provide information on training that is related to equality and diversity, management, leadership, and-or other opportunities linked to career progression. I am pleased to say that 15 additional awards were announced on March 31, which means: there has been a total number of 98 awards; 20 HEIs have achieved a bronze award; and 78 departmental awards have been made to date.
The attainment of Athena SWAN awards is now linked to eligibility for research funding. This is an important moment and we are leading in this area. When I tell European colleagues and the European Commission about the progressive initiative that we have taken as a country. I refer to the fact that we have linked the eligibility to apply for research funding from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Health Research Board, the Irish Research Council, and Science Foundation Ireland to attaining an Athena SWAN award. That means we have directly linked gender equality to the ability to draw down research funding. I think that is a good move and I hope it is one other countries will follow. Our senior research academic posts have increased by 50% in the course of a year from 2019 to 2020. In addition, in the research sector the female research applicant success rate has grown from 26% in 2019 to 31% in 2020.
To be clear about accountability, in addition to the submission of progress updates the governing authority of each higher education institution must submit a statement to the HEA confirming that the institution has an action plan in place, and that it is being implemented as part of its annual governance statements. All HEIs are required to submit an annual governance statement and a statement of internal control to the HEA, which covers a comprehensive list of governance requirements. That is how we ensure accountability in terms of progress.
The HEA has awarded funding of over €0.5 million under the gender equality enhancement fund in 2020-21 to advance gender equality initiatives in Irish higher education. Awards were made across three areas - research on or advancing gender quality initiatives in Ireland; training programmes that specifically address gender equality; and Athena SWAN capacity building activities. Projects were funded across several areas. They include the promotion of female role models in the physical sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics; the development and implementation of gender identity, expression and diversity training for staff in Irish HEIs; the establishment of networks to support female participation in computer science; resources to support the academic advancement of mid-career female staff; the provision of gender equality-based leadership training to future leaders and so on.
Recommendations 29 and 16 refer to how we reform financial supports. Recommendation 29 states: "In view of the gendered impact on women, reform the Third Level Grants Scheme to ensure that those accessing part-time courses are eligible to apply for a grant." Recommendation 16 states: "Address the specific needs of lone parents to incentivise and support them in accessing work or education, including provision of child and after-school care." When I took up this role one of the first things that I did was commission a review of the student grant scheme. It is timely that I am here because I was delighted to bring the final report to Government this week and we launched it yesterday morning.
Already, as a result of the review, we have made some early progress in addressing some of the review's recommendations around the cost of living. However, we cannot hide away from the fact that the cost of living for students has increased as it has for us all. As women comprise the majority of lone parents we must ensure that there is access to the supports they need if they wish to enter or re-enter education.
For the first time in a decade there will be significant changes to the rates and eligibility when it comes to student grants. As colleagues will be aware, the rate of the grant will increase. There will be an increase in the income threshold that goes into a house while still qualifying. Plus the number of students who can qualify for a larger grant will increase due to changes in the adjacency rules from September. All that in of itself is not enough. We need to make bigger changes to the structure of the SUSI grant. The review that I published yesterday is very clear about this matter. To be blunt, that means considering ways to provide student supports and grants to people who undertake part-time education. There is the idea that every student is 18, just out of school and looking forward to going to college for four years. That is great for them but that is not all of our students. There will be an increasing number of students, and it is hard to put ages on these things, who will be in their 40s, there will be women with dependants with a mortgage and a full-time job trying to, and needing to, access the education system. I admit, as the Minister, that there is an inconsistency in the policy approach. We tell people to take up part-time education and study in flexible ways but do not provide a SUSI grant. Yesterday's review was very clear that there is a need to make changes in that regard and I support the need for those changes. I have been working my way through that in the budgetary processes and would welcome cross-party political support for this.
As part of the overall funding package that we announced yesterday, there is an implementation group that will be chaired by Professor Anne Looney and Professor Tom Collins, which may be of interest to the committee in terms of its work to make sure that there is a focus on gender equality and gender proofing the work of the implementation group.
Very shortly I will bring to Government the new national plan for equity of access to higher education. I am genuinely very excited about the plan. It is going to make an impact where we need it the most. Not only will students be supported to enter third level, we will start to measure things a bit better and not just measure getting somebody in the door, which is important. We will measure when people get in the door of a college and what happens when they leave college.
Objectively, through successive Ministers and Governments of different hues, we have made a lot of progress when it comes to access. However, we do not measure everything when it comes to access. We can say that we are doing great, and in some areas we have, but the bigger story is the things in the access plan that we do not measure. Perhaps this committee has some ideas on how we can look at some groups that are currently under-represented in higher education. Of course that can involve people from socioeconomic groups that have low participation. For example, Irish Travellers, students with disabilities, first-time mature student entrants, part-time and-or flexible learners; and further education award holders.
Lone parents and ethnic minorities are included in this grouping as a subgroup. Following a review of the supports and barriers for lone parents in accessing higher education in 2017, a number of additional supports were put in place to support lone parents. In the interests of time I will take the detail of that as read as I am conscious that my statement is a bit long.
Recommendation 30 refers to the STEM programmes and analysing how to encourage more women into what have been male-dominated careers, which includes STEM programmes and apprenticeships, and, equally, how do we develop initiatives that encourage men into female-dominated careers because, traditionally, the caring professions have been dominated overwhelmingly by women rather than men. One of the most impressive groups that I have ever encountered since I took up this role is the group called Women Technology and Stem, WITS. They have informed me about the various barriers that face young women entering STEM careers, and the steps that we need to take to fix what they call the leaky pipeline of women working in STEM industries.
We are very good at diagnosing what the leaky pipeline is and diagnosing the problems and challenges but it is harder to diagnose what we need to do next. I have met some of the most impressive people I have ever come across in this area and even in discussions with them, I am not sure we are clear on the five or ten tangible actions we must take. That feeds into the work of the committee. The problem has been clearly identified. It is a fact that there are many women in Ireland with qualifications in STEM not working in STEM. There are also women in Ireland with qualifications in STEM not in the workforce. That is the leaky pipeline. The question is how we fix it. I have had some very good discussions with those people on that.
We are funding a number of initiatives to ensure more women enter male-dominated careers. Existing programmes to encourage women into male-dominated careers include Springboard+ and the human capital initiative pillar 1. Springboard+ complements the core State-funded education and training system and provides free and subsidised upskilling and reskilling higher education opportunities in areas of identified skills need. Since early 2017, Springboard courses have been made available for free to returners, that is, people looking to get back into the workforce. Employed people participating in courses at levels 7 and above contribute 10% of the course cost, with the remainder being funded by the Government. Almost 64% of course places are in STEM-related areas, including new and emerging technologies around cybersecurity and virtual reality.
When it comes to apprenticeships, there needs to be a relentless focus on female participation. We have an action plan for apprenticeships. We want to get 10,000 new apprenticeships registered every year by 2025. I believe we are going to hit that target. It is possible we could even exceed it. We are already at over 8,000 as of last year. Some good news, albeit coming from a very low base, is that the number of female apprentices is growing. It was 665 at the end of 2019 and was 1,482 in March 2022. There is an increase there, which we very much welcome. One of the five unambiguous objectives in this plan is Apprenticeship for All, meaning that the profile of the apprenticeship population will more closely reflect the profile of the general population. We are matching the rhetoric with actions. We have also put in place a new bursary scheme. I recently announced a gender equity bursary, which provides a bursary for employers of apprentices from a minority gender in apprenticeships where there is over 80% representation of a single gender. This applies overwhelmingly to apprenticeships where employers need to take on women to bring about gender equality, but there is one apprenticeship in hairdressing where they need to take on more men. Under the action plan, we are also establishing an equity of access committee and will develop additional targeted actions to support the diversification of the apprentice population so that it more strongly reflects the general population. Options such as increased flexibility in the delivery of apprenticeships to facilitate part-time employment or periods of leave will be considered in the delivery of this new inclusive apprenticeship delivery structure. These actions align with the national strategy for women and girls which includes an action to increase female participation in apprenticeships.
Regarding recommendation 38, which is about eliminating tolerance in our society of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, the framework for consent in higher education institutions was launched in April 2019. It aims to ensure the creation of an institutional campus culture that is safe, respectful and supportive for students and staff. The framework outlines a number of aims for higher education institutions, HEIs, students and staff. The HEA and my Department will ensure relevant supporting structures and processes are in place to address the issues of sexual harassment and violence on campuses. There are 15 framework outcomes, which are grouped thematically under headings and look at areas such as institutional culture, institutional processes for the recording of incidents, lines of responsibility and targeted initiatives.
The first letter I wrote to university presidents on taking up this role was not about funding or any of those important issues; it was specifically about adopting a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment, sexual and gender-based violence. As a result of that, every higher education institution in Ireland has now published its own individual action plan. National frameworks are great but institutions cannot hide behind them. They cannot stay too high-level. The presidents have to tell us what they are going to do on their campuses to make sure the culture is safe, and how they are going to report on that. I thank them all for their work on that.
As part of the monitoring requirements, HEIs are required to report annually to the HEA on progress in implementing the framework for consent. We are also providing funding for this. Over €400,000 has been allocated to a number of initiatives. In addition, the HEA has allocated funding of over €500,000 towards consent workshops, the development of an anonymous report and support tool, and UCC’s bystander intervention programme. I thank Professor Louise Crowley for her leadership on that. My Department is also partnering with the Department of Justice and the NUIG Active* Consent programme on the roll-out of an integrated, publicly available, online learning and resource hub on sexual consent awareness and learning. I thank Dr. Pádraig MacNeela for his leadership there. I launched the online consent hub on sexual consent in January. This is the first time we have a national online resource relating to consent. It is a publicly available, free educational resource on sexual consent for young people, their families, and the educators who work with them. This hub will play an important role and will be a very important resource for both students and wider society.
I could not come here today without commenting on the launch of the report on the student and staff surveys on sexual violence and harassment in higher education. It was a genuinely harrowing read. I take this opportunity to thank students and staff across the country who took the time to engage with this survey and share their experiences. Some people were too focused on identifying how many people filled out the survey and so on rather than listening to what the survey was telling us. A total of 11,417 responses were analysed from 7,901 students and 3,516 staff. The survey points to some positive developments. There has been a significant increase in awareness around the training programmes and a significant increase in the willingness of both staff and students to access training programmes. More students want consent classes and more staff want to be trained in this area. More people say they would intervene in a scenario they did not believe to be appropriate.
Those are the encouraging signs but there are also some deeply troubling findings, such as the levels of sexual harassment experienced by staff and students. This is not necessarily on campus harassment because we asked students and staff for all their experiences. It is an insight into a broader societal challenge. An expert advisory group on ending sexual violence and harassment, chaired by the HEA, has reviewed the survey reports and has proposed a number of actions, for example, around consent classes and the availability of investigators. I have fed the recommendations of my Department and that expert group into the Department of Justice for inclusion in the third national strategy on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. I will continue to speak up and speak out about the importance of institutional change, championing the changes required to achieve a cultural norm where bullying and sexual harassment are not tolerated.
I want to mention an important piece of data-gathering within the higher education sector. On 8 March 2021, I launched the national gender equality dashboard for higher education institutions. This is based on the higher education institution staff profiles by gender. This dashboard was developed by Maynooth University and provides, for the first time, an interactive and comparative visualisation of key staff data and gender profiles from Irish higher education institutions. It will be updated annually and offers a valuable baseline from which progress on gender equality can be visualised and measured across all grades of staff in universities, colleges, and institutes of technology. It is important that we continue to improve data collection so we can have the evidence to inform policies and measure progress or highlight challenges. The centre of excellence in the HEA monitors HEI performance through the strategic dialogue process. The centre is responsible for analysing and publishing annual higher education institution staff profiles by gender and setting ambitious targets in this regard.
This was my attempt at a brief synopsis of what my Department and sector are advancing to achieve the goal of gender equality. There is a massive body of work to be done in third level. In many ways, the third level sector holds a mirror up to the broader issues in society. We, the sector, students and staff are determined to lead the way in bringing about cultural change. If we cannot bring about a safe culture in academia, a place that is meant to be full of enlightened progressives, where can we? Education has the ability to change culture. We should let our young people and staff in colleges experience zero tolerance for sexual harassment and gender-based violence. Let them have the tools and resources they need to live in a gender-equal society and let them take that knowledge out into broader society, back to their homes, communities and workplaces.