Commencement Matters

Access to Higher Education

I thank the Minister of State for her time. I acknowledge that there is a crossover between the Commencement matter and the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. In 2015, lone-parent legislation impacted in a particularly harsh manner on a cohort of older lone parents, mainly women, who were placed outside the lone-parent provisions by the State and considered as simply unemployed. Under this legislation, when the child of a lone parent turns 14, that parent moves from jobseeker's transitional payment to jobseeker's benefit. After the child has reached the age of 14, the lone parent will become invisible in the system. The Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection recommended raising the age from 14 to 18 to keep this cohort visible.

Today, I want to look at older women whose children are above the age of 18 and who are no longer deemed by the State to be lone parents. They go without intervention in education and go from being lone parents at risk of poverty to older people living in poverty. The educational acquirements of this cohort were limited and many of these parents were denied the right to progress to a masters of their choice. Their right to progress to PhD was totally removed and their educational requirements were placed under the remit of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, contravening Ireland's commitment to the provision of access to all strands of higher education outlined in the Bologna process. For those who had attained a level 9 qualification through Springboard, no further training options are automatically available. It should be noted regarding educational progression that those graduating from Springboard masters, which are few and limited, do not enjoy the same level of postgraduate support as others. This further removes the possibility of educational progression and calls equality legislation into question.

It is desirable that the Department of Education and Skills works in tandem with the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to address these issues. They speak to an unfair positioning of this cohort and their families, who are at an above-average risk of poverty. In some cases, women with a masters level of education have no option but to take on low-paid and low-skilled work due to large gaps in their CVs as a result of their remaining at home alone to care for their children. Competition for employment is difficult enough without being 45 years old with very little employment history due to being the sole provider and carer for children. The opportunity to progress further educationally with targeted supports may help a cohort of older women to gain decent employment and reach the highest level of educational attainment if that is their desire.

I ask for recognition that this cohort of women has been placed at risk of sustained poverty.

This should include recognition of the particular difficulties that older women face in gaining employment. Since 2008 the employment market has been structured around low-paid and precarious work which in many cases favours younger employees. Many of these women have a small window of opportunity to make provision for their old age and need support from the State to have the opportunity to progress. The restoration of rights to training and further education for those who have attained a level 9 qualification is an urgent requirement. This should include access for this group of older lone parents to all educational levels, including doctorate, Ph.D., with required supports where necessary to enable equality of opportunity.

I thank Senator Ruane for raising this important matter. The programme for Government included a commitment to prepare a report on the barriers to lone parents accessing higher education. This was carried out by the National University of Ireland Maynooth which was engaged by the Department of Education and Skills to conduct the review. The review was overseen by a steering committee chaired by the Department of Education and Skills, which included representation from the Departments of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and Children and Youth Affairs and the Higher Education Authority, HEA. There was also consultation with the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government.

The key findings of the report around the barriers faced by lone parents included that there is a lack of data on lone parents in higher education. Research has consistently identified lone parents as a group at higher risk of social exclusion, financial exclusion and economic vulnerability. There are a range of financial supports offered by the State to cover the direct and indirect costs of attending higher education. These include supports from the Department of Education and Skills and Higher Education Authority, specifically the student grant scheme, student assistance fund and supports available in higher education institutions; supports from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, specifically the back to education allowance, cost of education allowance, one parent family payment, jobseeker's transitional payment, family income support, jobseeker's allowance, jobseeker's benefit and rent supplement; childcare support schemes from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs; and the housing assistance payment from the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government.

There are particular financial challenges for lone parents wishing to access higher education. This can arise from the additional costs associated with supporting a family unit, the fact that there is limited support available for part-time study, which is often better suited to lone parents, some differences in the level of support provided to different categories of lone parent, and limited awareness among lone parents of the 'bundles' of supports that are offered by the State.

There is a cross-departmental group in place to respond to the recommendations of the report while the Department has put in place specific measures to focus on lone parents accessing higher education. In August last year I announced €16.5 million for new initiatives to widen access to higher education, with a strong focus on helping lone parents to access higher level education. The Department identified education as a key area to break down the barriers of disadvantage and open up pathways for those who might easily miss out. That announcement included funding bursaries worth €5,000 for 600 students coming from non-traditional backgrounds into college, with support for at least 120 socioeconomically disadvantaged lone parents. This is a €6 million regional call under the programme for access to higher education, PATH 2 of the national access plan funding. The second funding call was to support programmes to help 2,000 students from non-traditional backgrounds, including 200 lone parents, to enter college and successfully complete their course. This will be a €7.5 million regional call under PATH 3 of the national access plan funding. A further €3 million in increased funding was announced over three years for the hardship supports to help students, with lone parents being prioritised

Across Departments there is a further range of supports available to lone parents and other key supports provided by the Department of Education and Skills, including additional funding secured in budget 2017 to facilitate the reinstatement of full maintenance grants from September 2017 for the most disadvantaged postgraduate students. In addition, postgraduate students who meet the qualifying conditions for the special rate of grant under the student grant scheme are eligible for a maintenance grant of up to €5,915 and the income threshold for this grant is €23,500. Qualifying postgraduate students may also be eligible to have their tuition fees paid up to a maximum fee limit of €6,270. Alternatively, a postgraduate student may qualify to have a €2,000 contribution made towards the cost of fees. The income threshold for this payment is €31,500 for the 2017-18 academic year, increasing relative to the number of family dependants. In addition, students in third-level institutions experiencing exceptional financial need can apply for support under the student assistance fund, SAF. This fund assists students who might otherwise be unable to continue their third level studies due to their financial circumstances. Tax relief is also available on postgraduate tuition fees. The SAF has been extended to support part-time students in 2017 and an additional €1 million has been allocated to prioritising support for part-time students who are lone parents.

Students on courses that lead to a higher education award at levels 6 to 10 of the national framework qualification, NFQ, are eligible to apply for SAF. I am mindful that in some cases there can be a presumption that lone parents are more likely to be concentrated at the lower end of the age spectrum. This is by no means always the case. There are lone parents in their 40s and 50s who also want to access higher education and need support. The challenge is broad and wide-ranging. To respond to the recommendations and newer issues as they arise a cross-departmental implementation committee was established by the Department of Education and Skills. The supports that have been put in place and that are being monitored by the committee will ensure that there is positive progress with regard to lone parents participating in higher education.

I thank the Minister of State for her detailed response which comprehensively covers all the supports available. Maybe when the cross-departmental committee meets it might consider the visibility of some of those lone parents because once their children have turned either 14 or 18 they no longer fit into the bracket of lone parents. The data might not exist because their title in the system has changed. It might be a positive idea to gather data on older lone parents who have lost all supports because they have lost that title. There might be more targeted supports for them.

It might not be that they would get the financial supports available to lone parents but that they would still hold onto the title of "lone parent" in order that they could access the supports available for lone parents, as their family situation does not really change just because their children turn 18, apart from such children being able to access their own social welfare payments. Perhaps some of the educational provisions could still carry on for women whose youngest child has turned 18.

I thank the Senator. I know that group is meeting either today or tomorrow. I will ask it to look at that proposal.

Teagasc Courses

I welcome the Minister of State to the House and thank her for coming to deal with this issue this morning. I raise the issue of the need for the Minister to amend the age eligibility criteria for the green certificate core training course for young farmers. As we are aware, the green certificate is the qualification for young farmers. It is a necessary qualification for many reasons. Not only does it improve the knowledge and future farming abilities of the young men and women but it also is a necessary qualification in respect of stamp duty, inheritance tax and the receipt of some schemes and grants within the agriculture sector.

There are two ways for any young person to achieve the green certificate. The first is a full-time training course in an agricultural college. The other option is to study on a part-time basis through courses which are usually run by Teagasc. The anomaly and the issue I am raising this morning is that, to do the part-time course, one has to be older than 23 years of age. I have heard of a number of cases recently in which this was not at all feasible or possible for the young people in question. One particular example is a case in which the existing farmer, the father, is in ill health and the young person who wishes and is very willing to achieve the green certificate - and who needs to for the reasons I mentioned before including schemes and so on - cannot take the time to do the full-time course. By virtue of the fact that the person in question is only 20, he cannot do the part-time course. It is something we need to look at across the broader spectrum rather than just in this one individual case.

In the agriculture sector we have continual debate about the age profile of our farmers. We are continually discussing ways and means to attract younger people and a younger generation to take up the mantle and to become full-time qualified farmers. The fact that they cannot do the part-time course is a hindrance, especially because we have such a labour shortage at present and because there is such a promotion of expansion within the agriculture sector, which has greatly increased the workload on many of these farms. The young person in question is an integral part of the working of that farm and is a necessary member of the labour force. His loss for the duration of a full-time course would mean that outside labour would have to be brought in which is, first of all, not available. Even if it were available, in many cases, because of the low income margins of the farming community, especially the small family farms, it would not be possible to pay labour while the young person is away on full-time training. Allowing these young people to do the part-time course would be advantageous. They would become used to doing training on a part-time basis which, it is to be hoped, they would continue after they finished the green certificate. It would become endemic among such farmers to train while working and they would then be more freely available and more prepared to carry on with knowledge transfer schemes and further education down the line.

I hope this is something that can be looked at. The agricultural college is an integral part of our system and I do not want, in any way, to create a situation in which all people might jump on the bandwagon and pursue the part-time courses. That would be detrimental to our very good agricultural college training system. However, there are exceptional cases in which the fact that one has to be 23 to do the part-time course creates a big anomaly within the system.

I thank Senator Daly very much for raising this matter. I wish to apologise on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Creed. He is not able to be here this morning as he is taking oral questions in the other House at the moment. As we all know, the green certificate is delivered by Teagasc and has been developed to meet the training requirements for part-time and full-time farmers. It is accredited by Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, an independent State agency responsible for promoting quality and accountability in education and training services in Ireland. In delivering the green certificate, Teagasc fully adheres to QQI’s quality assurance guidelines and principles. Participants can take the green certificate programme on a full-time, part-time and distance education basis at Teagasc agricultural colleges and at local and regional Teagasc education centres. There is no minimum educational entry requirements, but those who have completed the leaving certificate are likely to perform best.

The green certificate opens up a wide range of career options for participants, many of whom will return to farming either in a full-time or part-time capacity. There are also many job opportunities for green certificate holders in the equine, horticulture and forestry sectors. Additionally, the green certificate meets the training requirement for stamp duty exemption, as the Senator mentioned, and for various schemes operated by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Teagasc is responsible for establishing the eligibility criteria for the green certificate with QQI. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has no function in the matter. QQI’s validation process for the part-time green certificate programme requires Teagasc to specify target learners and access conditions. As it is an adult education programme, Teagasc requested validation for mature students of 23 years or over. An external QQI validation panel reviewed the programme in respect of entry requirements and licensed Teagasc to offer it as an adult education programme.

It is important to point out that the green certificate part-time programme is an adult education programme and not a school leaver programme. The age threshold of 23 years is the accepted convention for adult education programmes in Ireland across the vocational sector. The part-time green certificate option takes two to two and a half years to complete and comprises two awards: the level 5 certificate in agriculture, which is worth 120 credits; and the level 6 specific purpose certificate in farming, which is worth 50 credits. This option consists of a combination of formal course work and a period of practical learning. Areas covered include farm business and IT, principles of agriculture, farm safety, farm performance and management modules, grass production etc.

As a strong supporter of agricultural education, the Government welcomes the exceptional interest in the green certificate over the past few years, which reflects renewed interest and opportunities in agriculture. Teagasc research shows that formal agricultural education provides positive returns in family farm incomes and farm productivity. Teagasc graduate surveys also reflect the above findings with an average of 80% of respondents engaged in farming indicating that they increased their farming activity in the five years after graduation. The Minister, Deputy Creed, was pleased to secure approval for additional resources to enable Teagasc to provide almost 3,000 extra green certificate places that would otherwise not have been made available. The training of so many young farmers is a very positive development for the agrifood sector, both in terms of supporting structural adjustment and encouraging young educated farmers to remain in and to enter farming.

I appreciate the response from the Minister of State. As she stated, Teagasc has full responsibility and the part-time course is treated or seen as adult education. I hope the Minister of State can take my problems and issues with it on board.

I am talking about exceptions rather than opening the floodgates on this. It would be shameful if one or several young individuals felt because of their circumstances on the family farm that they would have to farm untrained for five to six years before reaching the age of 23 and taking up the course on a part-time basis. This would be detrimental to individuals who would be five or six years out of the education system when starting the course. It would also have a negative effect on their farming capabilities and the efficiency of the farm if they were to farm untrained. The Minister could, in consultation with Teagasc, come up with a special case arrangement in this situation.

I thank the Senator and I will report to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed. I emphasise that the green cert part-time programme is an adult education programme and not a school leavers' programme. The age threshold of 23 years is the accepted convention for adult education across the vocational sector in Ireland.

Maternity Services Provision

The gynaecological waiting times in the maternity hospital in Cork have been an issue for the past few years and I have been involved in trying to reduce the waiting list for these services. The Cork University Maternity Hospital, CUMH, which was established ten years ago, is a conglomeration of three maternity hospitals, namely, the Bon Secours maternity unit, St. Finbarr's Maternity Hospital and the Erinville Hospital. It has delivered an awful lot for the people of Cork and has been a very important part of the healthcare system in the region.

On 12 January 2017, I was at a meeting with the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, in the maternity hospital in Cork where the waiting list for gynaecological services was discussed in detail. Almost every one of the 19 consultants in the maternity hospital was present. Significant issues were debated. I acknowledge and welcome the change in governance and the significant reforms since that meeting. These are very important steps.

One of the key issues to emerge from that meeting was that waiting lists are exceptionally high. They were the longest waiting lists in the country at the time. This was unacceptable. Significant measures have been put in place since then. The hospital has leased a theatre in the Mater Private Hospital in Mahon and has outsourced to the Bon Secours Hospital on Blackrock Road and has opened theatres on a Saturday, all of which is very positive. It is the first time in the history of the State that a medical centre has opened on a Saturday to carry out this kind of procedure.

Waiting times are a big issue for the people of Cork and addressing them is the biggest issue for us. We need a sustainable long-term solution. For that to happen the second gynaecology theatre in CUMH needs to be opened. The news that has come out in the past few days that it will not open in 2018 is a major issue and needs to be addressed. A commitment was given that funding would be in place to appoint five consultants over three years. This funding is in jeopardy. I need clarity on the funding of these consultants and the opening of the second gynaecology theatre. We have the physical infrastructure. We do not have to build it or look for it. We need the consultants and the people and women in Cork need the service. To have the longest waiting list in Ireland in a brand new hospital does not do the hospital or the women of Cork any service. It is a very serious issue and if it comes down to funding we need to consider that. To have a theatre sitting idle that could solve the problem if it were staffed is a huge issue for us. I hope the Minister of State can bring some clarity to this very important issue for our part of the world. If she is not in a position to do so maybe she can get me the information. Much as I welcome the Minister of State's presence, the Minister for Health or one of the line Ministers should have been here to discuss this really important issue because it is one of the biggest health issues in the region and clarity is urgently required so that we can resolve it.

I thank Senator Lombard for raising this issue today. I am taking this Commencement matter and apologise on behalf of my colleague the Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris. The Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Daly, could not be here today.

The Minister wishes to acknowledge that waiting times are often unacceptably long and he is conscious of the impact of this on people's lives. Reducing waiting times for the longest waiting patients is one of this Government's key priorities. As the Senator said, the Minister visited CUMH early last year and has seen the valuable service it provides.

Following that visit, he prioritised CUMH among the National Treatment Purchase Fund, NTPF, initiatives under last year's inpatient day case waiting list action plan. Funding of over €200,000 was drawn down by CUMH ensuring the provision of treatment to 52 patients.

In recent years, CUMH has received funding to invest in the improvement of its gynaecology services. The South/South West Hospital Group, SSWHG, committed an additional €700,000 to the service for 2017 to provide increased theatre capacity and staffing resources to deliver improved waiting times for inpatient day case treatment and outpatient appointments. In 2018, an additional €400,000 development funding has also been allocated to CUMH gynaecology services. Last year also saw the strengthening of the management, organisation and delivery of maternity, gynaecological and neonatal services following the establishment of the national women and infants health programme within the Health Service Executive, HSE. This programme is developing a plan for the provision of gynaecology services. In addition, the SSWHG, in conjunction with CUMH, has developed a phased approach to improve waiting times for its gynaecology services. This includes the establishment of the SSWHG women and children services directorate last year, which, the Minister expects, will ensure better co-ordination and utilisation of maternity gynaecological resources across the group.

The waiting list data from the NTPF for the end of April 2018 indicate that there were 410 people waiting for CUMH gynaecology inpatient services. This marks a decrease of more than 14% on the numbers waiting this time last year. The outpatient waiting list data indicate there were just over 3,600 people waiting for gynaecology services at the end of April. CUMH has seen improvements year on year with a decrease of more than 22% on the numbers waiting this time last year.

More broadly, the inpatient day case action plan 2018, which was published in April, outlines the combined impact of HSE and NTPF activity in 2018 to reduce the number of patients waiting for treatment.

Under the plan, the HSE will deliver 1.14 million hospital procedures. The NTPF will deliver 20,000 inpatient day case treatments through both outsourcing and HSE insourcing. The NTPF and the HSE will invite proposals from hospitals for waiting list initiatives. The NTPF will provide funding for the solutions proposed, if appropriate.

It is clear that the infrastructure put in place for gynaecology services by the South/South West Hospital Group, together with the investment in Cork University Maternity Hospital, is starting to reap some improvements in the waiting lists. However, there is always room for further improvement. This year’s inpatient day case action plan provides the vehicle for them to engage with the NTPF to submit proposals for waiting list initiatives for both inpatient-day case and outpatient procedures.

I thank the Minister of State for her response. As she said, there has been a reduction in the waiting lists. I went through how it has been done. Cases were outsourced to the Mater Hospital and the Bon Secours Hospital, and other initiatives were involved. More than 3,600 women are still on the waiting list. It is a frightening figure in many ways. My main concern is that a theatre sitting is there, which will not be open in 2018. The lack of the consultants and other staff required to work in that theatre is a huge issue for the people of Cork. I hope the Minister of State will talk to the Minister for Health to clarify when the theatre can open and if there is a proposal to recruit the required staff and consultants. We have the solution. We have the theatre and the infrastructure but we need the manpower and budget. We have 3,600 people waiting for that to happen.

I thank the Senator again. I will undertake to talk to the Minister for Health about the opening of the theatre and the appointment of consultants and staff to operate it.

Sitting suspended at 11.13 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.