Safe Reopening of Tertiary Sector and Key Priorities for Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science: Statements

I welcome the Minister to the House and thank him for coming to take statements on the safe reopening of the tertiary sector and key priorities for the Department of further and higher education, research, innovation and science. All Senators have five minutes.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for my first opportunity to address the new Seanad and to be here as Minister for a new Department of further and higher education, research, innovation and science. I am very excited about the establishment of this new Department and the opportunity to work with Members of Seanad Éireann. There is a wealth of knowledge, experience and interest in the House on a cross-party and cross-grouping basis in areas to do with further and higher education, research, innovation and science, and how we can get them to work together. I very much see this new Department as a Department to promote economic growth and the well-being of our country and helping to get people back to work and reskill and retrain people, as well as being a social Department to promote social inclusion and cohesion to make sure that every single individual in our country, regardless of where they came from, their gender, or who they or their parents are, has an opportunity to reach his or her full potential through a variety of routes. That is what I would like it to engage with Senators on, not just today but over the coming weeks and months.

For the purposes of this debate, I will stay for the first half and will be replaced by my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, because he has specific responsibility for skills. That will provide Senators with a full view of the range of things we are doing in our new Department.

I am glad to have a chance to set out the priorities, which I believe are shared priorities across the Oireachtas, for this Department so it can be an engine for social and economic progress. It will be a crucial driver as we rebuild, and reshape, our economy for the post-Covid area, founded on a principle of equality of opportunity and uniting third level education with the key sectors of research, innovation and science. I will speak more on this later, but first I want to update the House on the current, important and critical work being done to safely reopen third level education.

As Ireland moves towards a gradual return to on-site activity, institutions, providers, staff and learners across higher and further education continue to demonstrate the commitment, adaptability and resilience which has delivered a preservation of learning throughout the pandemic. That is an important point. Third level education did not stop during the pandemic; rather, it moved online. Our lecturers, teachers, leaders and students showed incredible resilience in adapting overnight to moving from on-site to online learning. An interesting QQI report showed that despite that major change, institutions still managed to uphold the standards and the integrity of the qualifications. I want to thank and pay tribute to those involved for that.

As we begin to return to a blended model, which will not be the same as others and will not involve everybody returning in one fell swoop or en masse, but instead involves a mix of on-site and online learning, the safety of students and staff is an absolute priority. It is priority number one, two and three when it comes to the reopening of third level. The sector is committed to ensuring that all health protection measures are in place, led by detailed guidance developed with public health experts. I met the Irish Universities Association, IUA, the Technological Higher Education Association, THEA Ireland, which represents institutes of technology, and all of the unions last week. I also met the USI. There is really good collaboration going on, and most importantly that is grounded in public health advice from public health officials.

Communication to students and learners will also be a priority as they move from emergency remote learning towards a mode of blended learning, which combines online and on-site provision. The national tertiary education roadmap and a Covid-19 adaption framework was developed. This provides a shared structure for Government, sectors, institutions and providers to use in returning safely this autumn while also continuing to plan and adapt as we move through the pandemic and may move up and down different levels of our roadmap for living with Covid. This was, of course, supported by a funding package because funding is important. There are costs associated with this. A large funding package of €160 million was provided by the Government and welcomed by many in response to the additional cost of reopening safely.

Last week, in light of the deterioration in the Covid-19 situation in Dublin, and following NPHET's request, the Government asked that higher and further education institutions consider enhanced protective measures. I want to acknowledge and commend stakeholders across the sector for their engagement and willingness to adapt to heightened restrictions coming just at the exact time most students are commencing their academic year.

It could not come at a more difficult time for them and I thank them for their leadership in responding to that NPHET request.

The additional protections being put in place will see a more gradual reopening of higher and further educational facilities in Dublin. Individual institutions revised their plans and communicated with students. The following overall approach will be adopted for the initial period ahead in Dublin.

Institutions will use discretion when deciding between on-site and remote for the scheduling of particular activities where remote delivery is feasible during this period. On-site provision will be minimised with priority given to teaching and learning that can only take place on-site. This includes prioritising research. A person cannot have a science laboratory in his or her kitchen.

As regards on-site classes that need to take place, this includes trying to make sure to minimise the number of students congregating at one time and positively discriminating in favour of things that cannot take place online. It also allows institutions to bring in priority student cohorts including first year students, perhaps, in smaller groups for induction, orientation and some small tutorials. It also includes keeping the libraries open so students can go in and learn, again, in a controlled manner. Sadly, in Dublin, on-site social club activities cannot proceed currently while we are at this heightened level of concern regarding Covid-19. Outside Dublin, the reopening of facilities is proceeding as planned based on the public health advice on that model of blended learning and full adherence to the public health advice.

A robust model of outbreak management is being put in place as a priority and this is important. We have seen in crèches, schools, workplaces, homes and anywhere people gather that Covid-19 cases can happen. It is important we have a good outbreak management system in place so that when it happens, everybody knows what they need to do and that what they do is grounded in no principle other than public health. I want to thank everybody for working on that outbreak management protocol that is being finalised as we speak. I expect it to be finalised tomorrow. This aims to safeguard students and staff and the communities in which they are located. Detailed information is available to students and learners directly from their institutions and providers and will be frequently updated. 

With regard to further education, many have already returned to on-site learning. Craft apprentices who had their off-the-job training and assessments disrupted in March have returned on-site to complete practical assessments. Recommencement of disrupted training began at the end of August and apprentices will be called for off-the-job training in line with public health guidance.

I am conscious, however, that one cannot just provide additional money to institutions and to bricks and mortar. In our package of support, we also had to provide additional supports for students and to protect students' well-being. I was particularly pleased to secure a financial package of €5 million to support students' well-being and mental health. This will be used to recruit additional student counsellors and assistant psychologists and will support the implementation of the soon-to-be-published national student mental health and suicide prevention framework.

Last week, along with the Union of Students in Ireland, USI, and higher education counsellors, I launched a new 24-7 text-based mental health support for third level students and I ask colleagues to help spread the word. Let us make this number famous. It is available 24-7 and anytime, day or night, any day of the week, a person can text the word "Hello" to 50808. It is not just for students. Somebody will be at the end of that line, 24-7, to help people tease out and work through any issue, big or small, and direct him or her to any additional supports. The number is 50808. I ask Senators to please help get that out.

I am aware Senator Ahearn contacted me on the issue of making sure money for mental health is getting exactly where we want it to get to. I have communicated directly with the HSE on this. I am clear that I want to make sure the use of the money for mental health is to be used directly for the expansion, development and improvement of student counselling services, which are excellent. We need, however, to improve their access as well.

We also put a fund in place for student devices worth €15 million which has allowed higher and further education institutions to place a bulk order of 16,700 devices for students across third level. I heard from students who said we cannot tell them they are doing stuff online and all of a sudden not make sure they have access to the devices. We know many families and many people have fallen on hard times so I hope this funding will go some way towards bridging the digital divide, supporting students and ensuring equality of access to education. 

I am delighted we have been able to double the student assistance fund. This is the fund that a student can draw down through his or her access office if he or she falls on hard times. There was €8 million in it. We have doubled that to €16 million.

Where they provide accommodation, I have asked higher education institutions to show flexibility and common sense in terms of its use. If a student is not going to be in college the way he or she normally would, institutions should see if they can use the accommodation in a more flexible way and allow somebody to book a room for two or three nights a week or month, or whatever his or her schedule requires. I am grateful that a number of higher education institutions have done that.

While it is not in my power to issue instructions to the private rental market, I urge private providers to follow suit. I note that the USI met with my colleague, the Minister with responsibility for housing, Deputy O'Brien, this week and we will continue to work together to see how we can support students. Being honest, in the long term we need to provide more college-owned accommodation. We need to be less reliant on the private market. We are far too vulnerable and exposed when we do not have enough college-owned and university-owned campus accommodation.

As I have been asked to do so, I will briefly return to some of the priorities of the new Department, particularly those we are progressing between now and the end of the year. One of our earliest priorities was to secure the funding package I referenced earlier but also to secure significant investment in the Government's July stimulus to tap into the potential of the new Department, which has responsibility for the training budget that goes to education and training boards, ETBs, for SOLAS and for apprenticeships, to see how we can help contribute to economic recovery. We need to provide the many people who will have lost their jobs and who may be concerned about losing them with opportunities to re-skill and retrain. I am delighted we received €100 million through the July stimulus to fund 35,500 additional training places across the country this year and thank the Taoiseach for his support in that regard. This includes 19,000 full and part-time places through the skills to compete programme aimed at unemployed people seeking work, as well as 3,300 one year postgraduate courses in areas where there is a skills need.

For the first time in the history of the State, we are now providing a financial incentive scheme for people who take on apprentices. Businesses which do so will receive €3,000 in cash, €2,000 now and the remainder next year for each new apprentice they take on. We have seen more than 500 additional apprentices be signed up under the apprenticeship incentivisation scheme since we announced it a few weeks ago. There is a lot of low-hanging fruit where apprenticeships are concerned. We need to drop the snobbish attitude we have in this country about higher education and need to provide more diverse pathways. Apprenticeships have huge untapped potential in this country as well.

We must get serious about adult literacy, numeracy and digital skills. Some 16% of us do not have basic literacy skills, 25% of us do not have basic numeracy skills and 55% of us do not have basic digital skills. If we are serious about creating equality of opportunity we need to address that. That is why on International Literacy Day I announced Government approval to task SOLAS with developing the first-ever interdepartmental adult literacy, numeracy and digital skills strategy within the next six months. Members of this House will be very interested in the issue of technological universities as many of them have been in touch with me about it, and Senator Byrne more than most, in particular in regard to the development of a technological university, TU, in the south east. We are accelerating plans for the development of this vital facility for the region with the appointment of Mr. Tom Boland to spearhead the project and this will be a key priority in the coming months.

As well as providing diverse pathways though, we have to respect diversity in university. I am extremely concerned about sexual violence and sexual harassment and indeed the issue of consent at third level. I would be glad to work with Senators on this. I have launched the new active consent toolkit developed by NUIG and written to all university presidents on the need for an action plan on sexual violence for every institution to be published by February. We have to get serious about this. There is very concerning information about staff and students. I will not take up time going through all of that but I think many Members will have heard me talk about the cultural shift we need to see here. Sexual harassment is not confined to our universities but we need to lead rather than be laggards in this regard.

Finally I wish to address research, innovation and science. There is a huge opportunity here with Science Foundation Ireland, the Irish Research Council and higher education institutions now being under one Department to drive forward the research agenda, to draw down opportunities under the Horizon Europe Framework Programme and to try to influence the future direction of European research and innovation policy. The delivery of the Tyndall National Institute development plan for a new facility on the Tyndall site in Cork will double the size of Ireland's largest research centre specialising in ICT. As such there is huge potential here to make exciting, positive change for the future of our country. I am grateful to the House for its interest in this and look forward to drawing on Members' expertise and working with them in the days, weeks and months ahead.

I thank the Minister for coming to the Chamber and for the energy and enthusiasm he has shown in the establishment of this new Department and the work that he and the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, have done so far. I echo the Minister in thanking the higher and further education institutions for doing Trojan work in the past few months both to adapt to the pandemic but also to prepare for reopening in these difficult times. This is particularly true for how they have ensured students, learners and trainees are at the heart of the discussion. In the limited time I have I had hoped to talk about the role of the new Department but there are a number of specific issues which the Minister may wish to respond to or that the Department could get back to me on.

I welcome the Minister's commitment to additional college-owned campus accommodation and the commitment on adult literacy particularly with regard to digital literacy, which is a challenge for us. The Minister is very committed to the area of positive mental health and the well-being of students and I am happy to repeat the 50808 support service number the Minister mentioned. I was conscious of the priority the Minister gave to that at the Technological Higher Education Association, THEA, online seminar with the Royal Irish Academy on Monday and also of the remarks of Professor Pete Lunn.

I echo the point that when Government is providing resources, this has to be for mental health and well-being services. Key to that is the role of clubs, societies and student unions, which the Minister has recognised. They need to be supported. I know the Minister is committed to a multi-campus university in the south east and I ask him to keep us in the Seanad informed of that and of the issue of the Wexford campus being at the heart of that. There are specific issues around supporting student nurses and midwives. The Union of Students in Ireland, USI, has been in touch with the Minister on that, and if he can provide a specific update, I would be appreciative.

The Erasmus+ programme has been one of the most successful European programmes. Unfortunately, it is much more difficult in these circumstances and we have always had a challenge whereby more Erasmus students come to Ireland than we send out. In a post-Brexit scenario, Ireland may become even more attractive for international students, but in our future relationship with Europe we need ways in which we can encourage international exchange, and I hope that will be a priority for the Department.

Related to that issue is another issue that has been raised with the Department, namely, the challenge around international student insurance and the fact that international students now have to take out community-related insurance, which is more expensive. I would appreciate a specific update on that.

In the field of research, which the Minister mentioned, the one thing we should not lose sight of is the importance of the relationship between Irish and UK higher education institutions. Even in a post-Brexit scenario, a lot of work has been done by the British-Irish Chamber of Commerce on this, we have to continue to foster those links. That has to be key to the research agenda, as must furthering education links with European institutions.

I am glad the Minister has prioritised research, because in our experience of what is going on at the moment, our institutions have been responding in incredibly innovative ways. There is leadership being shown by the likes of Professor Philip Nolan, president of Maynooth University, and many others in our institutions. It is key that we look at why it is important to invest in research. I ask the Minister to look at specific programmes in research around Covid, not just into public health but also the impact this will have on other areas of society. I ask the Minister also to look at big societal challenges, including the green agenda. How can Ireland contribute toward that and be innovative in that way? Tied in with the green agenda is the opportunity to retrofit many of the existing buildings in further and higher education.

I will speak about where I see the role of this Department. The Minister is correct to say this is not just about administrative functions for the Department and taking over a bit of the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation and a bit of the Department of Education of Skills. This is a Department for the future. With the convergence of new technology we have to look at preparing our citizens. It is about investing in digital literacy and providing digital skills for the staff in our higher and further education institutions. The Minister mentioned areas like online learning and short courses, while Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, has done a lot of work on microcredentials and how we can build awards. We have to be imaginative in what we do. We need policy councils dealing with research policy and higher education policy, tied in with the work of the Higher Education Authority, HEA, so we can get evidence-based policymaking not just driving the Minister's Department but driving the whole of Government.

At the core of this Department has to be the learner. Our economic policy for so long has been based around the twin pillars of tax and talent. The reality is that Ireland is not necessarily always going to be able to compete on tax. We will have to compete on talent. The Minister's Department will be in the front line and I wish him well.

I thank the Minister for the leadership he showed this country in the early days of Covid. He provided a lot of calmness to the situation that we faced as a nation, and while we did not get everything right, I thank him for the work he put in during that time.

I will address the Minister on the important matter of apprenticeship schemes.

Apprenticeships can provide employment to people and skills to the economy which is of the utmost importance now more than ever with the challenges of rising unemployment due to the Covid-19 restrictions.

I welcome that the Minister is making apprenticeships a priority. However, there is more that can be done. I respectfully request that the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, with the stroke of a pen introduce funding for local authorities to provide apprenticeships, employment, hope and opportunities for people. We must lead by example. Apprenticeships are an excellent way of learning, earning and getting into permanent paid employment. There are a large number of apprenticeships available in a range of industries across Ireland. Apprenticeships are an invaluable way for people to ground their learning in a practical experience of a real job. Research highlights the role that apprenticeships can play in helping to tackle youth unemployment and the significant benefits they can provide for those young people who are most likely to leave school at an early age and subsequently struggle to find employment.

Apprenticeships have contributed to the development of many companies and industries throughout Ireland. There are 54 national apprenticeship programmes operational across Ireland, with a further 23 launching during the course of this year. There are over 18,000 apprentices completing training in Ireland, with even more growth envisaged throughout the course of the next few years. I am thrilled to note that the Minister has made apprenticeships a key priority for this Government and has already launched a consultation process on the next national plan for apprenticeships. Of particular importance in this process is the way in which we increase participation in apprenticeships, especially the ways in which we create a more diverse and gender-balanced apprenticeship population. Equality of opportunity in regard to participation in apprenticeship schemes is a laudable objective.

I welcome the apprenticeship incentivisation scheme under which the Government will pay businesses and employers up to €3,000 for taking on apprenticeships. It is great to see the Government acknowledging the key part that apprenticeships will play in the country's recovery and in the country's future. However, I have a concern, which falls close to home as a former county councillor of many years. A consortium of industries and education partners are heavily involved in the successful provision of apprenticeships, yet there is no apprenticeship opportunities within local government. Local government is an ideal workplace in which we can provide a programme for structured education and training and where better for young apprentices to learn about politics, law, society and much more. Many local authorities will have previously engaged with promoting apprenticeships, so why not lead by example? There is no shortage of people who are interested in such apprenticeships. Working within such a broad sector as local government will allow so many to operate in varied working environments and develop countless different skills. This proposal needs to be addressed during the Minister's consultation process and implemented as soon as possible.

Local government apprenticeships and public service apprenticeships are a vital next step for reinvigorating the apprenticeship model. By expanding apprenticeships into new fields we ensure that education through apprenticeships remains a successful avenue for people young and old and an exciting way for employers of all types to develop talent for their industries. We have 31 local authorities in this country. With the stroke of a pen the Minister, Deputy Harris, and the Minister of State, Deputy Burke, could guarantee 30 apprenticeships to those bodies. We could create 930 apprenticeship programmes in this country. I appeal to the Minister to lead by example.

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Harris, to the House and I thank him for the information he provided and acknowledge the proactive engagement with third level institutions by his Department over the last few months.

The Department of further and higher education, research, innovation and science is a welcome development, bringing together the funding agencies of Science Foundation Ireland and the Irish Research Council. Ireland is renowned as a centre of learning, from Clonmacnoise to the excellence in research shown by our Irish researchers winning at European Research Council, ERC, level. We have had four winners of the ERC starter-award in Ireland this year.

As a spokesperson in this area, I very much welcome investment in over 2,200 additional student places in respect of the leaving certificate, which allowed more people to access courses and helped alleviate the pressure on points. There were over 275 places in the west, with 60 in engineering at NUI Galway and over 30 in healthcare at GMIT. I wish students well in the context of the second round offers issued by the CAO yesterday. There were over 35,000 additional posts on the Skills to Compete programme and 3,100 in postgraduate courses. There are many ways and paths to reach one's career choice. I encourage everyone who is listening to consider all different ways to reach his or her career. I also encourage people of all ages to consider further education as well. As the Minister mentioned, there is much we could learn about the digital divide and things such as social media and going online. There is so much for all of us to take on board.

The Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, also launched the third round of €500 million for the disruptive technologies innovation fund this morning. That is an initiative bringing enterprise and third level together to drive innovation. Again, it shows how important third level education is when it comes to industry in this country. A package of €168 million was designed to help the further and higher education sectors deal with the impacts of Covid-19. The new fund of over €15 million for student devices will enable access to laptops. That will be available in the student access offices across the country and in the education and training boards.

In terms of safe reopening, the Government has shown its commitment to prioritising education and the safe reopening of schools and colleges. Now, more than ever, we need research and innovation to help us respond to challenges in healthcare and climate change. It is heartening to see how all sectors work together. Many third level institutes supported the HSE with facilities to support contact tracing teams and testing. I have spoken to different colleges, including NUI Galway and GMIT, and the Galway and Roscommon Education and Training Board, and the majority of courses and tutorials are being delivered online, with the exception of practical work, laboratories and clinical. GMIT will be opening on 28 September and managing over five campuses. Covid response plans have been put in place and the investment in personal protective equipment, PPE, has been noticed and is very welcome. Colleges have been working with students' unions to offer support and guidance to students and their families. It can be an anxious time for students leaving the structure of secondary school behind. Mentor networks have been set up in many colleges, and I welcome the new investment in the student support service and the 24-7 number. One can text "Hello" to 50808 to have a chat. No problem is too big or too small.

The unique college experience for first years will also happen, albeit in slightly different ways. Online orientation is happening and clubs and sports clubs will be operating. We will see many people trying out kayaking in Galway, especially on the River Corrib. It will still be great craic and it will still be a great place where people can learn and make friends for life through their college experience. It is a wonderful time to learn and discover.

Regarding key priorities, it is important that education is accessible to all. Social cohesion, as the Minister noted, is key. The first point for me is funding of the sector, particularly on foot of the Cassells report and the review of the commission. What will be the next steps for the funding of third level, especially with the loss of international students and the funding and income they would have provided? The second point relates to acknowledging the importance of third level and how it will help our economy and society to recover. Access to skilled graduates, world-class research teams and research infrastructure is a key consideration when attracting foreign direct investment. That is crucial for Ireland. We could also consider reviewing the targets of the regional skills fora. Some of the measures the Minister mentioned, such as apprenticeship.ie, the €3,000 for taking on an apprentice and ThisisFET.ie, are wonderful resources. There are also the Skills to Compete and Skills to Advance programmes under SOLAS, Skillnet Ireland and the MentorsWork eight-week business support programme, which is fantastic and is free to SMEs across the country.

The third point is the development of technological universities, which was also mentioned by Senator Byrne. I have a particular interest in the Connacht-Ulster Alliance, which will be submitting an application shortly. The alliance brings together GMIT, the Institute of Technology Sligo and Letterkenny Institute of Technology, potentially over eight regional campuses. That shows how important it is to have access to third level in regional areas outside the main urban centres. The importance of this technological university is bringing together students, enterprise and communities in the west and north west. Is that not a great concept?

Why is our region so deserving of the Connacht-Ulster Alliance?

The west and north west are now an EU-designated region in transition. The income levels of people in the west and north west are roughly 75% of the EU GDP average, including all 27 countries. We need to see how investment in third level education is going to deliver for our enterprise, industry and entrepreneurs in our area. That is about technology transfer, engaging with innovation vouchers from Enterprise Ireland and supporting those businesses.

I ask that we strongly consider Horizon Europe funding and that all of my colleagues ask for that support from the European Research Council. Member states are driving for that. We, in Ireland, targeted over 3% innovation as a proportion of our GDP. We have many challenges that are ongoing at the moment but we have fantastic potential.

Our universities and third level institutions are places where world-class research takes place. We need to invest in the best and innovation is the answer. As Professor Jean-Pierre Bourguignon said, unless we invest in research and innovation, trusting in its best minds, "the future we want will never arrive".

There is no clock in here, which makes things a little more difficult.

The Senator has five minutes.

That is no problem. I welcome the Minister here. I am delighted that there is a Minister with responsibility for further and higher education, innovation, research and science because those are my favourite topics in the world. I am thrilled that there is a Minister focused on the area.

I could take the Minister on a whistle-stop tour of all the different things I could talk about. I will try to get through as many as I can. Last week I met representatives of the Alliance for Affordable Insurance for International Students who are deeply concerned about the cost of insurance for international students. I do not know if this has been brought to the attention of the Minister. The ruling of the Health Insurance Authority, HIA, was perfected by the courts 11 days ago which means that the cover for these international students must come into effect on 2 October. They will be required to take out community insurance and this means that the cost will rise from €150 to €730 next week. Could the Minister address that? It will have a serious impact. We must look after our international reputation and I am concerned about the effect of this, particularly seeing as international students will get less cover than previously.

I will talk briefly about precarious work. We know that the higher and further education sector is riddled with precarious work. I have recently been contacted by staff who are on two-year contracts and have been told that their contracts are not going to be renewed. Those staff believe that teaching is now going to be done by unpaid research, PhD, postgraduate or postdoctoral students. That is worrying. We have always known that unpaid teaching has been happening underneath the surface in the sector. We all saw recently an email that went out from an institution stating that unpaid work was going to be a requirement. That was the first time in my time doddling around this sector that I had seen that written down like that. I am concerned about unpaid work and think everyone should get a fair day's pay for a fair day's work. That should apply particularly to research students who are trying to finish their studies and share their expertise. They need respect. The Minister might consider and address that point because we must get to grips with it.

While we are on the topic of paid work, it would be remiss of me not to talk about student nurses. One student nurse who contacted me is working on a Covid-19 ward and is not being paid. She cannot eat a clap. The candles in people's windows are not going to pay her heating bill. It is unacceptable that we have student nurses who are not being paid.

We already know that our fees are among the highest in Europe. The Minister has said those fees are simply too high. The Cassells report was launched when I was president of the Union of Students in Ireland. There has obviously been a plot twist in my life, given that I have somehow ended up becoming a Senator a couple of years later. We are still talking about the future funding of higher education and I implore the Minister to fund the sector. The road ran out four years ago when the report was launched and the sector is bursting at the seams.

The programme for Government commits to reassessing the Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, grant system. I would be interested to here what is the Minister's timeline for that. We desperately need to look at things like adjacency rates, postgraduate supports and targeted grants. I am concerned about the impact that Covid-19 is going to have on students who traditionally struggled to access higher and further education, or whatever post-second level learning opportunities they wanted to. I am worried that they will fall through the cracks. I am interested to hear what we are going to do to support them.

The Minister mentioned accommodation and I once sat on that interdepartmental student accommodation working group. My phone is ringing off the hook with students who were told that there was going to be face-to-face learning and have now been told that is not going to happen.

They have paid for accommodation. I know that a number of institutions are being flexible but not all of them are, and that is really worrying.

As for postgraduate fees and supports, we have some of the highest postgraduate fees in Europe. They are astronomical. I nearly fainted yesterday when I looked at how much they are now compared with when I was doing my postgrad. We need to think about how we support students. There are some postgraduate grants but they are limited, so how will we support these students?

The stipends of research students whose research ran out during lockdown have run out. Some of them are being allowed back into their institutions to finish their research but they have no money to do so and are concerned they will not be able to finish out their PhDs.

Staff are trying to prepare for three types of classes: online, in person, and in person but also online. That is an enormous burden. I spoke to a lecturer the other day who said they are trying to get ready but they do not know what they are trying to prepare for. That is really difficult.

Finally, I wish to give a shout out to the USI Education for All campaign, which was launched this week. I am sure USI would not mind if I invited everyone in this Chamber to engage with that campaign and listen to what USI is talking about. Education should be for everyone. It is not a privilege. It should be open to everyone who wants it, in whatever format it is wanted: post-second level, apprenticeships, further and higher education, and lifelong learning. I look forward to working with the Minister on making that a reality for everyone.

I thank the Minister for attending. I look forward to working with him and his officials over the coming weeks and months. I wish to put on the public record our thanks and appreciation to him, his officials and the further and higher education establishments, which have been doing fabulous work over recent weeks.

I note with some concern reports yesterday that the individual action plans that had been agreed by various institutions would not in fact be considered or reviewed by the Department. I note what the Minister has said about the outbreak management protocol, but as for the individual action plans, why give out guidelines to these institutions if the Department will not in fact review them? Could I have some clarity on that?

Like some of the previous speakers, we in Sinn Féin have heard many stories of students who have been told they will get a certain amount of campus time this year. While I wish to put on the record that public health should be paramount and central to everything we do in the weeks and months ahead, these people have made commitments to accommodation. I heard what the Minister said about his call to the institutions to be flexible, but have he and his Department spoken to the Government here and other Departments to look at a package that could perhaps decrease fees this year and possibly even reduce rents or help students to pay them? Students should not have to bear the brunt of the pandemic. Has the Minister looked at anything bespoke and specific to that?

I note what the Minister has been saying about his key priorities, particularly in the coming year, but I find it staggering that there was no mention by him of Brexit, given the fact that we are possibly coming to a cliff edge in respect of the withdrawal agreement and the possibility that the British Government might not adhere to it. Where does the Minister believe the third sector is with Brexit, regardless of whether the withdrawal agreement will be adhered to? I am aware that a lot of work has been done on North-South co-operation over the years, which is to be welcomed, but there has not been enough. I therefore call on the Government and the Minister himself to take the lead on this and establish an all-island forum on further and higher education and a summit or gathering of some sort. It is really important that this is done sooner rather than later, especially given the many issues that further and higher education institutions in the North and the South will face in the months ahead in respect of Brexit. I therefore specifically request that the Minister consider putting this to the North-South Ministerial Council and establishing a task force to look at the many cross-Border issues facing our institutions.

Could I ask specifically about the Erasmus programme? It has been made clear by the EU that it will legislate for those who are currently part of the programme to continue with their studies in the event of a no-deal Brexit. What are the Minister's intentions in that regard? More specifically, while it is important to have clarity for students who are currently on the programme, has the Minister taken into consideration European students in the North who have Irish citizenship, who are not part of the current cohort but who will possibly consider seeking to access the programme in the future? Is he considering a vehicle that will allow students in the North to avail of this programme in the years ahead?

What is the Minister's position on the Part 5 amendment to the Student Support Act 2011? Under the previous legislation, it was suggested that eligible students from the Six Counties who are studying in the Twenty-six Counties and who currently qualify for support from SUSI will continue to do so. That was part of the legislation based on the withdrawal agreement. Given the fact that we may not have the withdrawal agreement and that the Government is looking at new legislation, does the Minister believe that such support will continue? I seek absolute clarity on the Minister's future intentions regarding those students.

When the Minister was considering his key priorities, did he give any thought to the Government's commitment under the New Decade, New Approach deal at a time when we are all quite rightly discussing the fact that the British Government intends not to honour what was agreed in the withdrawal agreement? I remind him and the Department of the specific commitment to the expansion of the Magee campus in Derry in the north west. I ask the Minister to explicitly outline the Government's position on that. I called for a task force to be established to consider many issues. There needs to be a meeting of minds between the Minister, the Government, the Executive in the North and all of the key players in the north west who are trying to ensure the project is delivered. I specifically urge that a task force would be established to progress this significant project. I remind the Minister that the political will is there and that a political commitment from the Minister, the British Government and the Executive is also required.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins.

I also welcome the Minister of State and I congratulate him on his appointment. This has been an incredibly difficult year for young people, especially the cohort of first-year students, and also those who are working and not in third level institutions. It is quite right that we acknowledge that not everybody goes from second to third level. We are here today to talk about that cohort of people in third level who had certain expectations. They had expectations that they would try their best to do the leaving certificate and that they would go to college and have the social experience that all of us, but particularly young people, need in order to learn in the best possible way. We talk a great deal about education feeding into us, as human beings, but it is really the other way around: it is us, as a society, who feed into these Departments and say what it is that we want from the education system. That is why I go back to one of the commitments in the programme for Government I was very keen to have included, namely, to convene the Citizens' Assembly in order that it might consider the issue of education. We can include third level education in that as well. Now that our society has changed in the most incredible ways, we can decide what we want from third level institutions.

One of the measures in the programme for Government that has been mentioned by some of my colleagues is apprenticeships. Having spoken to the presidents of some universities, I am of the view that we have an opportunity to diversify and that third level institutions which previously did not offer apprenticeships but which have the capacity, experience and knowledge to do so could now do so.

For instance, in Galway we are experts in marine sciences. We know we must move towards protecting our marine environment, where apprenticeship opportunities exist. We have an opportunity to facilitate the greening of third level institutions because there is funding available from Europe for capital projects. Let us draw down that funding immediately for the purposes of greening - I refer to things like electric vehicle charging points and solar and wind power - thereby helping our third level institutions to be world leaders.

The issue of SUSI grants arises all of the time. We need ways to fund institutions and we need to ensure everyone has access to third level education. I have been very critical of the overemphasis in other jurisdictions, such as the UK and the US, on an industry-led approach to third level education. When such an approach is pursued, as a people we lose control of the direction in which society is going. We are being directed by particular corporations on what people should learn and on what is valuable and important.

The Cassells report has been mentioned. We need to see the implementation of some of the funding models. More than ever, people expect that the State will take care of its people. It is our job to fund these institutions so I welcome the announcement that funding will be provided. Our job now is to fund these institutions.

I thank the Minister, Deputy Harris, for attending the launch of the active consent toolkit in Galway yesterday. NUI Galway has led the way on consent. Earlier this year, it conducted a survey that shows we have much further to go. We often talk about young people having an issue with consent. Young people have been surveyed and we have found out what they think about consent. There is a wider societal issue here. Young people are leading the way by feeding into the active consent toolkit and showing us what they need to learn. In turn, they are showing us what we all need to learn about having mutual respect and respecting other people's bodies and mental health.

The question of student retention in first year relates to mental health. When people commence university or any third level education, they put their best foot forward. With the best will in the world, if students are living alone in an apartment for which they have paid over the odds and if they are in college for just three hours a week, like some of the first years I know, there is a need to invest heavily in their mental health and the kind of social experience they receive. Part of the answer involves looking at finances. I take issue with some of the guidelines. If someone can have other people in their homes when they are off campus, the Department should examine whether we need to micromanage on-campus accommodation to see whether a young person can have another person in his or her apartment.

I thank the Minister of State for being in the Seanad this afternoon. I thank the Minister, Deputy Harris; the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins; and the officials in the Department for all the work they have undertaken to prepare a safe reopening of the higher and further education sector this term. I wish to echo much of what my colleague, Senator Hoey, said in her contribution. She gave a great snapshot of all of the different issues that face students that might not necessarily have made it on to the radar of many of us.

As a university Senator, I have engaged with universities, colleges and staff that have specific concerns around Covid. I hope we can keep the rate of unavoidable risk to the absolute minimum and allow people to start and progress with their studies despite the pandemic.

There has been significant public discussion and controversy on the nature of entry to third level education this year, based on the nature of this year's leaving certificate and the predicted grades system as it relates to the CAO process and entry into third level education. I have been contacted by many worried parents and students who feel that the system is unfair for various reasons.

However, I also know of many cases of students from disadvantaged backgrounds who will now be attending third level because their grades were not docked on the grounds of going to a DEIS school. We have a lot to learn about third level entry from this year's leaving certificate. First, it highlights the extraordinary level of educational attainment inequality that exists based on the school someone goes to and the socioeconomic background someone is from, which is normally such a feature of the system and heavily determines entry into third level. What has really been illustrated is the weakness of such a system. I hope one of the first priorities of the Minister's term will be to explore alternatives to the leaving certificate as the primary determinant of entry to third level. Now is the time to abandon what we once knew as the leaving certificate and move to a fairer, more diverse approach to third level education.

In 2017, the Joint Committee on Education and Skills commenced a review of the ongoing reform of the leaving certificate and subsequently published its report in 2018. At the time, members expressed a real need to support students in their progression to third level. Looking back now, it is easy to assume that they were easier, less stressful times for leaving certificate students. However, we should imagine for a moment that it was not a pandemic that threw the leaving certificate on its head this year but rather the political will to have a real, inclusive education system that values students from all backgrounds and learning types in all their diversity. Had the leaving certificate been dropped in a planned, thought-out manner, we would be looking at a new era for education that recognises ability and allows young people to excel at a pace that is fair and is not based on grinds, rote learning and exam ability. The introduction to the committee's report states:

[T]he Committee sought to examine how to strike a balance between protecting the health and wellbeing of students, promoting their self-development and ensuring that they are well-equipped with the essential skills and knowledge required to successfully participate in a rapidly changing society and economy.

This is now more true than ever as that rapidly changing society has revved up a gear. This year, our third level students will be there based on much more than a mark from a set of exams in a particular year of their lives. We should take our learnings from this year and use them as a foundation for next year and the year after.

It is crucial that we meet the changing nature of the leaving certificate this year with a review of the CAO and the limited capacity of higher education. We have an opportunity to increase the number of students progressing to third level in a much more meaningful way, but this requires a real want on the Government's part to increase funding to the sector and ensure universities are respected and resourced for the role they play in the social, cultural and financial development and sustainment of our society. Previously, it was believed that incentivising students to take higher level subjects to receive extra points was a positive step forward in securing extra points to advance to third level. This is incredibly narrow and, like many incentives, benefits those in a position to take on the burden of extra workload and to access extra grinds at a massive financial cost. Many schools are way behind in the delivery of higher level subjects and often do not even offer higher level subjects. Now we have an opportunity to incentivise the everyday engagement and participation of students in all subjects, in the knowledge that their continuous academic ability is what they will be assessed on. The third level sector benefits from diversity but the leaving certificate does not provide it.

I also have concerns about capacity in the sector. Senator Higgins echoes these concerns. I know the Minister is proposing to increase course places to deal with points inflation this year and to assist students who did their leaving certificate last year so they are not disadvantaged. However, I have heard anecdotally that there are certain academic schools within Trinity that simply do not have the operational capacity to expand places. What is the plan not only to provide funding to colleges but also to ensure the places are actually delivered? What is the Minister's position on the Cassells report and how does he plan to enact a long-term funding model for a sector that was already on its knees pre-Covid? Higher education funding and access is an issue very close to my heart and I would appreciate if the Minister would outline his plans in this area.

This is my fourth time addressing the Seanad but it is my first time speaking in the actual Seanad Chamber in Leinster House. I made a wish as I walked in. It is good to be in our own House at this point. The Minister is very welcome. I am looking forward to addressing a few points with him in respect of the reopening of our third level and further education colleges.

I also wish to raise a few issues that I feel are pertinent for the Minister to explore further and discuss with Government colleagues.

As with the reopening of our primary schools in early September, the reopening of our third level and further education colleges has been a landmark event in our efforts to live with Covid-19. While, unfortunately, we have to accept that a full return to campus activity is not possible and that many universities are limiting on-campus activity, the start of classes across the sector is a significant achievement, and a testament to the educational establishments and their staff who are returning.

We are keenly aware that students are going to miss out on important experiences that usually come hand-in-hand with the start of a new term, including events such as orientation, because the celebrations associated with this phase of term will not now take place. This is really unfortunate for those young people affected. I am mindful of the mental health of our students, particularly those who are starting, because it is a big life milestone. We have to be mindful that they are starting out on a new journey without the supports that would normally be there and we have to ensure that all the support that can be given to promote positive mental health is put in place as they start this new journey in life.

I thank the Minister for his help and support with some issues I was dealing with on behalf of some students where clerical errors were made throughout the CAO process, although not on their part. In particular, it affected those who had changed schools in their leaving certificate year. I appreciated the way the Minister and his office dealt with the issues to ensure that the students obtained their rightful places, which was important.

I am also convinced that the issues which pre-date Covid-19 remain, and must be addressed. The need for additional funding, which is accompanied by increasing student numbers, remains, and focus is needed now more than ever on defining the future of the sector. The programme for Government makes a commitment to develop a long-term sustainable funding model for the sector, and the actions necessary to achieve this must be a priority of Government.

There are a few points I wish to make on accommodation at third level. I am reluctant to name specific institutions, but I understand that students were told by some universities to get accommodation because they had been promised that 30% of their time would be spent on campus. On the basis of that, students paid instalments. Then they were told that there would be zero hours spent on campus and that they would be refused refunds. There are mixed messages on this issue and we must get it right. I know of other situations, in a university not too far from the constituency of the Minister, where first-year students paid deposits for rooms on campus on the basis that they would be sharing with other students. They recently received notice that first-years would not be allowed to share accommodation, so the price of the accommodation was going to double. That is not on and cannot happen. It is only happening to first-year students, so I would appreciate it if the Minister could look into the matter.

Some universities provided an opportunity for students to sit an extra exam in order to matriculate when they reached sufficient CAO points, but others did not. I would like to see uniformity across the sector on this issue.

The last point I wish to raise relates to those with intellectual disabilities and their ability to access third level and further education. The Ability Programme and the 27 ability projects that support young people with disabilities to access further education, training and employment, is scheduled to close next June, and there is no thought, plan or budget as to what happens afterwards. The same happened in 2015 and there was a huge gap. I would hate to see this happening again.

This was clearly pointed out in the Indecon report on guidance in education. We have to put more thought into how we support those with disabilities in accessing higher and further education.

Before I call our next speaker, Senator Seery Kearney, I point out that the Minister will be coming back in at ten minutes to 2 p.m. We will find it difficult to include all Members so if they could consider sharing or shortening their speeches, please. There are more people offering than time available in five-minute slots. A Senator has also left the House who indicated his wish to speak and will be returning.

I welcome the Minister to the House and thank him for making time available to us. It is a great excitement for me to speak for the first time in the actual Seanad Chamber.

I begin by congratulating the innovation. I am very happy that the Department includes in its name the further education element because it is instrumental. I founded a college of further education and vocational training and it is instrumental for people’s development in their workplace and, also, to be able to come back to have modular training is a great innovation. The support and announcements by the Department in that regard have been great. I want to pay tribute to QQI, as did the Minister, Deputy Harris, in his speech. It has adapted, pivoted and worked very well in maintaining standards in education throughout this Covid-19 process, this whole nightmare of the last six months. Changing the modality of training, while still maintaining standards, is quite an extraordinary achievement.

I very much welcome the apprenticeships. We were recently in Burke Joinery in Ballyfermot and they particularly welcomed the role of apprenticeships and to have that conduit of building skills into the workplace. We really need that. We have seen a dearth of apprenticeships over the last ten years and to have an intentionality around the Department in the provision of 10,000 places, and to encourage young people to go down a different career path that is not points-driven to begin with, is to be very much commended.

My other points for the Minister are rather pedestrian when I compare them to those of my colleagues in the Seanad. I have three things that I appeal to the Department to consider. We have a cohort of students at present who are going through the appeals process for the leaving certificate. Some may require to sit the leaving certificate examination again in November. That is a whole issue which I will raise with the Minister, Deputy Foley, this afternoon. We now have that group of students, and we also have 2019 students who in good faith postponed their application to college for this year and, as a consequence, have been prejudiced by the sudden increase in leaving certificate points and how these points have been arrived at. Both of those groups are now going to be inhibited and impeded from entering college this year. I am appealing to the Department to give some consideration to some sort of stepped means of access into this academic year, given that these students cannot travel abroad and there are limited work opportunities for them. Perhaps we could consider an additional capacity of some sort. I acknowledge that there already has been additional capacity added to the system. As we change how college places are being delivered, perhaps there is some means by which that additional capacity could be added. Perhaps it could be done through pre-courses or some such means of addressing these students, so that in January we could have another group accepted into year one of college.

My other point is to do with the disability access routes to education. I have had a number of representations on this where people have made the application at the material time required by the CAO, at the same time they make the application for their disability access route to education status. Consequently, when they sit down to calculate their CAO options and what their preferential choices will be, it may perhaps be based on achieving or being granted that status, and thereby being able to access courses which they will be able to get on a slightly lower points basis by virtue of their status.

However, the two people who approached me subsequently found that their status was rejected and they had to reappraise their CAO application process. I do not know whether that is universal or unique to these two individuals, and Senator Hoey might assist me on that, but if that is the case it seems to me that having a system where people could be pre-certified regardless of whether they achieve their status and then achieve the CAO place it would be a far less stressful process.

I call Senator Mullen who has five minutes.

I welcome the Minister and thank the Government for what it has been doing to ensure the continuation of education, not just at third level but at all levels, during this time of crisis. We are fire-fighting at the moment and to some degree we have put aside consideration of many of the things we would aspire to see happen while we deal with the immediate challenges but there are lessons in these days. I think about how we have been going on and one would relate to the leaving certificate and the progression to third level education, which is increasingly seen as a box-ticking exercise by young people but a very serious and stressful exercise, and a system that seems to be built fundamentally around the needs of third level colleges as they assign courses to people.

I spoke to a highly experienced teacher recently who observed that second and third level education in 21st century Ireland has nothing to do with knowledge and everything to do with skills. We might refine that by saying that it has a lot to do with skills, something to do with knowledge but often has little to do with wisdom. That is because our system is increasingly constructed with employers and multinationals in mind, treating our young people as economic units rather than as individuals whose well-being and personal development matters deeply. While it is true and valid to say we must educate people for economic life we also have to educate people for quality of life. I believe we are in danger of losing sight of that and we need to reflect on that in these days.

So far as the third level educational experience is concerned, the core issue continues to be the big crisis around funding or, as has been described by Trinity Provost, Dr. Patrick Prendergast, the time bomb. I do not quite see the point the way other Senators see it about the need to establish a separate Department for further and higher education. Given that only one page out of the 126-page programme for Government has to do with higher education it seemed it was fairly thin. We can prescind from that, however, because we are where we are now and I have no doubt the Minister will be zealous. That funding issue has to be addressed but I note that the commitments in the 2020 programme for Government were fairly similar to those in 2016, so let us hope there will be movement on that big issue.

An issue on which we need to show courage and curiosity is the question of student loans, which I have brought up in the past. We would be kidding ourselves if we said that the abolition of fees in the mid-1990s did not erode the sense of the value of third level education and cheapen it somewhat as a resource. That is evidenced in our high drop-out rates, which is an incredible 33% for institutes of technology, according to the Higher Education Authority, HEA. We could look at something that would allow students to take out loans for third level education but the repayment of that to be linked to income in the future. We have to have a discussion about that as we go forward because there will not be money for everything.

I am very glad to hear the focus today on student welfare in the current situation. I note the term "blended learning" is being used a good deal. That is putting nice language on the rather sad fact that for the foreseeable future the quality of the student experience will be greatly diminished. I welcome the Minister's student support package around student well-being and mental health. I agree with him about the need for higher education institutes to be flexible around accommodation. I note, for example, the reluctance with which the University of Limerick repaid €3.5 million in rent to students for accommodation that they could not use due to Covid-19.

On the issue of consent, I am conscious of the fact that the frontal lobe of the brain in human beings is not fully developed until the age of 25.

I know what the Minister is trying to achieve, but it will be a very thin and ultimately unsuccessful effort to tackle the serious problems of sexual violence and harassment unless we situate that in a wider context about values, human respect and love. We need to be more reflective about the culture of individualism in our society. It will be a long time before we know whether these efforts on consent will be successful. I am concerned that they are not rooted in a sensible and thorough anthropology. We need a more thorough approach to bringing about behavioural change. All of that said, these efforts are laudable and they must be supported.

The Minister was in NUI Galway yesterday. I was surprised to see recently that when NUIG put forward a mandatory requirement for students to sign a pledge to adhere to public health advice as a condition of registration, a breach of which would have been a disciplinary issue within the college, the college was subjected to a campaign of criticism through social media and eventually had to drop it.

I thank Senator Mullen. There is a queue of people trying to get in.

I would love to know if the Minister took time to discuss that with the people in NUIG yesterday because it seems very reasonable to have a mandatory requirement of signing up to a code of behaviour in the current circumstances.

There are many topics we could discuss in higher education. I welcome the Minister of State here today. The Minister touched on mental health in his opening remarks. I welcome what he said about prioritising the funding that was announced last month and that must go first and foremost towards counselling services.

I have three questions which the Minister of State might be able to answer or the Department could write back to me on them. I seek clarity on how that funding is managed. A letter the CEO of the HEA, Dr. Alan Wall, sent to the higher education institutions, HEIs, stated: "The HEA is encouraging all HEIs in receipt of this funding to distribute it in support of specific students facing areas such as...". Will the Minister of State provide a concrete guarantee that there is no loophole in the use of the words "such as" and give a clear message that this money is to be directly used for the expansion, development and improvement of student counselling services specifically. The same letter stated: "This package includes additional funding of €3m to underpin wellbeing and mental health and student services in our HEIs and is in addition to the €2m allocated for 2020 as notified to your institution in this year’s grant letter." Will the Minister of State confirm that this money should not be used to fill previous existing roles in student counselling services budgets, but rather that the allocation should be in addition to the existing student counselling budgets in future?

I ask the Minister of State to provide reassurances that budgets for student counselling services are to be protected and earmarked in the future to avoid potential cuts in the coming area. I welcome what the Minister said. This funding was announced last month to be ring-fenced for mental health services. Managements cannot decide to use it in other areas that are not directly for mental health. I welcome the Minister, Deputy Harris, saying that it should be predominantly used for counselling services before anything else.

I thank Senator Ahearn for his generosity with time which allows us to facilitate the three remaining speakers. I understand Senator Carrigy will be sharing time with Senator Cummins.

Many of the issues I was going to raise have been covered already. I want to speak about two issues in third level education.

I welcome the additional places made available for third level courses throughout the country in recent months to deal with the increase in the number of students seeking to go to college. I want to ask about 2021. I realise I am looking into the future but we are all aware of the serious circumstances of the large number of students who sat their exams in 2019 and who have not got a place in college because of the large increase in points attributable to the system introduced for 2020. That will be an issue. If some of the students do not take up places this year, how will those whom I hope will sit exams in 2021 be affected? Are there plans for an increase in the number of courses in 2021?

I would like an update on the development of a technological university in the midlands and mid-west. The Minister of State will be quite familiar with this. I refer to combining Athlone IT and Limerick IT. This could be transformative for the midlands and the mid-west. Athlone IT and Limerick IT are innovation partners of choice for both industry and academia and are central to the development of the entire midland area.

I welcome the funding already allocated by the former Minister of State, Mary Mitchell O'Connor. It amounts to €90 million over the next three years. I ask that the Government commit to the funding and that more be put in place. Athlone IT and Limerick IT have recently joined the Regional University Network of the EU with the aim of transcending languages, borders and disciplines. This puts their proposal ahead of other technological university proposals, some of which have been mentioned here already. I ask that the proposal for the midlands and mid-west be accorded top priority.

I will try to be as brief as possible. I welcome the Minister of State to the House and wish him the very best in his new role. The establishment of the new Department is very welcome. It is a great step forward for the sector. In the face of Covid, it will probably be one of the most important Departments. Many people will require upskilling and retraining to fill the gaps that will exist in light of Covid-19. It is often when people are faced with adversity that they really see the opportunities that exist. Lifelong education and learning certainly present opportunities. As a secondary school educator, I wholly subscribe to this idea.

With regard to priorities for the Department, like my colleague from Wexford I would like the establishment of the technological university for the south east, specifically referred to by the Minister in his opening remarks, to be a top priority. I am not going to go into the long history of university designation for Waterford and the rest of the south east. Suffice it to say that it is important that the new Department and Government focus on it. To that end, I welcome yesterday's announcement by the joint presidents of Carlow and Waterford institutes of technology and the chairpersons that they are aiming to have designation by 1 January 2022. My view differs from theirs slightly regarding the date by which they seek to have an application with the Department, that is, by the summer of next year. I ask that, when the meeting takes place between the Minister, Deputy Harris, Mr. Boland, the presidents and chairmen, a buffer be built in at the front end so the application will be submitted by spring, just in case there are any difficulties in the adjudication process that might result in further delay.

I will leave it at that. It is really important for the young people and industries in the south east to have university designation. The south east is the only region in the country without university designation. It has to be a top priority for the Department.

I thank Senator Cummins. He managed brevity with no ambiguity. The Minister of State has generously ceded some time to Senator Lombard, who has a few minutes.

I thank the Minister of State for giving me a few minutes to make a point on the allocation made by the Department for the mental health of students. Students at various levels are struggling during the Covid crisis. The allocation of €5 million is very worthy and I very much welcome it.

I want to mention UCC and CIT in particular and the number of students going through these institutions. UCC has more than 20,000 students at present. It has an amazing complex. The lack of a counselling service there is a major issue. It would be worth the Department looking into it to ensure that a campus with more than 20,000 students would have a capable counselling service. Will the Minister of State examine this and make sure that we have enough counsellors? They are required given the unusual circumstances we have with Covid. In many ways, students have been pilloried as spreaders of the disease. This is very unfair. They have suffered because of this. They have suffered physically, mentally, emotionally and socially. The lack of a good counselling service on these sites will be an issue. I will leave this with the Minister of State and I hope he will revert back to me in time on what can be done to increase the counselling services on these two campuses.

I thank the Senator for his brevity. We are trying to be inclusive but many people are offering. Before I call the Minister of State, I warmly congratulate him on his appointment. I am delighted to do so. I shared radio studios with the Minister of State several times and found him to be a gentleman. I wish him well. I apologise that he was held up.

I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for his kind remarks. We have all heard today about the incredible amount of planning that has gone into supporting all elements of the broad education and training sector through this most difficult period and the work done on reopening schools and third level facilities. As Minister of State with responsibility for skills and further education, I wish to update the House and actions taken to support these sectors in responding to the Covid-19 crisis to date and in future. I will cover the ongoing work to reopen educational facilities generally. As the Minister, Deputy Harris, mentioned, a Covid-19 adaptation framework was developed by the Department of further and higher education, research, innovation and science to assist in this work. Changes to public health advice that are likely to be made throughout 2020 and 2021 will change the shape of the learning experience in further and higher education, and the framework has been developed in a way that eases accommodation of these changes for the sector.

The planning for a return has been significant and is ongoing, but we must remember that managing the response to the Covid-19 crisis will not stop at the end of September. The framework will provide a structure for the ongoing management of the Covid-19 crisis as we move through the academic year. Blended learning will need to continue and be enhanced for learners according to the current local public health situation and prevailing circumstances in the institution and provider. However, as the acting Chief Medical Officer stated earlier this week, there are no zero-risk options for reopening schools or any other environment and outbreaks are likely to arise despite all the best precautions. We must reopen in as safe a way as possible by ensuring that all appropriate public health measures are in place. Physical distancing, hand hygiene and other health and safety guidelines will require adaptations to the physical environment and any new restrictions. Institutions and providers are prepared to show their resilience by responding quickly and innovatively should there be a return to a higher level of restrictions, as they did during the emergency period of the pandemic. Everyone will need to stay abreast of the emerging situation as people return to campuses, training centres and facilities throughout the State. The Health Protection Surveillance Centre and the HSE will continue to publish advice and guidance to help us all deal with the changing situations.

The general principles that apply to the management of Covid-19 include the safety and welfare of employees as well as students and learners. There are responsibilities on all facilities to ensure compliance and it is incumbent on all employees returning to the workplace to comply fully with any plan.

In regard to skills, my Department has also been considering how to respond to emerging skills needs in light of the impact of the public health crisis on employment and the labour market and the broader impact of the future world of work in areas such as the green economy and digital skills. The skills infrastructure is well positioned to respond to the impacts of the public health crisis on employment and the labour market.

These issues have been considered by the national training advisory group and the National Skills Council. They bring together employers, Departments and agencies, and education and training providers, and a set of recommendations have been developed through this process. They have been communicated to providers and employer bodies and were included in the national skills summer statement in May. The recommendations emphasised how education and training supports for companies and workers, as well as expanded activities in providing skills and a wider pool of jobseekers, should be informed by medium to long-term skills priorities. This includes responding to the rapid pace of workplace change, which has intensified over the period of the pandemic.

The centrality of digital skills in virtually all occupations, the need to drive the green economy and to respond to the challenge of Brexit, and the importance of leadership and management are made even more apparent as workplace change and product and service innovation have accelerated in recent months. The balance of the impact of the pandemic has also placed an increased emphasis on the need to support regional development and focus on reskilling people in vulnerable employment.

All programmes will need to be delivered flexibly to an increasingly diverse set of learners. In particular, interventions to support jobseekers will be short, focused, agile and well integrated with the workplace. The tertiary education sector is now moving to expand its skills provision to support those displaced or impacted by the crisis. Following the announcement of the July stimulus, the Government is investing in skills through a new initiative, skills to compete, developed by SOLAS and the education and training boards to shape the delivery of education and training for jobseekers.

Funding has been provided to increase system capability for skills development in retrofit. We are expanding Springboard+, rolling out the human capital initiative in higher education, and delivering a set of interventions through Skillnet Ireland.

The health and safety of everyone in further and higher education remains the paramount objective. Our approach is anchored in the national public health advice, as has been shown during the initial emergency period of the pandemic. Having clear lines of communication provides clarity and encourages strong and ongoing engagement with further and higher education which, by its nature, is a diverse sector. Therefore, it is essential that communications are delivered by universities, colleges and training providers with clarity for all learners, research, teaching, service and support staff, stakeholders and industry. There will be continual and ongoing communication with students, learners, staff, stakeholders and industry when the new academic year commences and institutions and providers reopen.

I thank all of the Senators for their contribution during this session. Any specific issues raised with me or the Minister, Deputy Harris, will be responded to directly.

I thank Senators for their support in recognising the further education and training needs of our society and community, in particular apprenticeships. We have a big job of work to do as public representatives to show leadership in the whole area of apprenticeships. Unfortunately, some people within our society view apprenticeships as a lesser form of earning potential and a career path, and a means to an end in terms of finding a sustainable career and job path. We have to try to quell that myth and encourage people, as much as possible, to consider the apprenticeship option. The apprenticeship action plan is in the process of being updated.

A public consultation is proceeding on that and while we have approximately 56 recognised apprenticeship programmes at the moment, we must radically expand that into newer areas. Obviously, we welcome the new areas that have come online and on stream recently. In particular, we must address and recognise the gender imbalance across the apprenticeship spectrum. I encourage everybody in the Chamber with leadership roles within their own communities and spheres to push that agenda of apprenticeships.

Thank you very much. A colleague had indicated that they wanted to come in. I point out that by order of the House, nobody can come in after the Minister responds to statements. I humbly suggest that colleague write to the Minister. I am sure there will be no difficulty with getting an answer. That concludes statements.

Sitting suspended at 2.06 p.m. and resumed at 2.30 p.m.