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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 27 Apr 2022

Vol. 284 No. 8

Funding for Ukrainian Students in Irish Universities: Statements

I welcome the Minister of State to the House to speak on this important topic at this time. He has eight minutes.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for the invitation to address the House at a very busy time in the third level education sector.

I will start by giving the House an up-to-date position on the sector’s response to people fleeing the war in Ukraine. The Government has been unequivocal in its welcome and I am proud to see that this approach is widely reflected throughout our society and in our sector. However, facilitating the significant number of people arriving is challenging, not least for the education sector. I record my appreciation for all throughout the further and higher education sector who have responded generously and openly, and supported my Department as it delivers its policy responses.

In line with the European Council decision of 4 March, the Government is applying the rights afforded under the International Protection Act 2015, which includes the right to access the labour market and education to qualified persons on the same basis as citizens of Ireland. It follows that they will be treated on the same basis as Irish students where fees are concerned and my officials are currently examining how these students may be further supported, including financially, in order to facilitate their continuing education in Ireland. We will be bringing a memorandum to Government to agree additional supports for qualified persons.

I have also tasked a panel of experts with creating a central help desk hub for Ukrainian students who want to continue their studies in Ireland. This group, which is made up of key stakeholders from multiple agencies across the higher education system, is working towards establishing the national student and researcher help desk. The help desk will be able to direct students to a local college equipped to meet their educational needs. In agreeing to fund this help desk, I know that it will be established by admissions and research advisers who will be very well placed to give the best advice to students and researchers arriving from Ukraine. I expect the help desk will be operational towards the end of this month. The situation in Ukraine is having profound effects across Europe in all areas of life. Most significantly, it is disrupting the lives and education of thousands of Ukrainian children and students. In Ireland and across all European countries, Members are well aware we are already welcoming students and pupils into our universities, colleges and schools. Our priorities in our education systems have to be to welcome, support and meet the needs of the students, teachers and researchers who are displaced.

I move to the cost of education. As Members are all very much aware the difficulties students face, like those faced by so many others in society, have increased as a result of the increased costs of living. For students and their families, this includes not just costs such as accommodation and food but also education-specific costs such as the student contribution. I have regular meetings with the Union of Students in Ireland, USI, and ongoing engagement with students across the country and hear stories of how these costs affect people. The Government as a whole is committed to addressing issues related to the cost of living. I have already taken significant steps to support learners and their families. Effective from the start of the next academic year, the rate of all maintenance grants will be increased by €200 for all Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, recipients. I have widened the thresholds by €1,000 to allow more people to apply for student grants and I have reduced the non-adjacent qualifying distance from 45 km to 30 km in order that more students can qualify for the higher rate of grant. This reflects the increased costs for those who live further away from their colleges. I have also put significant additional resources into the student assistance fund, including an additional €1.3 million, which brings the fund to €18.5 million for the current academic year. It is also important to note that approximately 65,000 students either pay no tuition fees or a significantly reduced rate of fee. These costs are covered by my Department through the SUSI scheme and last year, €190 million was allocated for this purpose. However, the SUSI scheme clearly does not cover everybody and there are many families who must pay out significant amounts of money each year to continue in third level education. There are different options to address the costs of education, including lowering student contributions, but fundamentally these are decisions which must be made in the context of the annual Estimates process.

As I look towards the next budgetary cycle I will be examining all the levers we have to address the issue in a way that has impact for students and families and that applies broadly across society. Let us be clear today that this package must and should include commitments to reduce the cost of education for families. Education is a fundamental right. I believe in access for all and that we must remove all barriers to access. I am also excited to speak to Members about developments in how we reform the funding of the higher education sector. I will be bringing forward a proposal on a funding model to Government in the coming days. It will be implemented as part of forthcoming budgets. Implementation of this model will entail the sector delivering strengthened performance and enhanced outcomes based on a robust reform agenda. This approach will be informed by the comprehensive economic evaluation of funding options that has been carried out under the auspices of the European Commission's structural reform support programme. The Minister, Deputy Harris, brought this matter to the Cabinet Committee on Economic Recovery and Investment shortly before Christmas. This allowed the key issues to be explored. It was agreed that the Minister and the Department would engage further with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, and his Department to inform the Government's consideration and in particular to undertake technical work to update costings reflecting relevant funding decisions in budget 2022 and other issues. This is nearing finalisation. The work has sought to robustly assess the assumptions underpinning the economic evaluation and to take account of the significant levels of State funding that have been invested in higher education and student support in recent years. It is our intention to bring final proposals for funding and reform of higher education arising from this work to Government very shortly.

We are also clear that from a policy perspective, addressing the sustainability of the higher education system must proceed in tandem with measures which address the costs of education as a barrier to accessing higher education. We need to focus on both if we want a system that can be accessed by everyone and that can deliver the talent and skills our country needs. With that in mind, I will also be bringing the review of the student grant scheme to Government at the same time. The new funding and reform framework will be provided to the Oireachtas Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, following Cabinet consideration and will be published along with the economic assessment report sponsored by the Directorate General for Structural Reform Support, DG REFORM, on the sustainability of higher education and the SUSI review.

There have been many reports on higher education funding over the last number of years and our goal is not simply to publish the economic assessment but for the Government to make big decisions that will allow for a multi-annual, inclusive process implementation to commence. The implementation process will allow for important input from stakeholders and provide much-needed momentum on the overdue implementation of key decisions that will guide funding and reform of the higher education sector in the years ahead. I look forward to hearing from Senators on what will be a clear and hopefully progressive way forward.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. There is a little bit of déjà vu given we were discussing the question of higher education funding here yesterday. I will come to that presently.

I begin with the situation in Ukraine and will raise a number of issues. It is important we put on record the strong support that has been made available by the universities, the technological universities, some of the institutes of technology and the other colleges. These have been places of sanctuary for many Ukrainian students and are doing everything they can to facilitate them. It is important to welcome the efforts by the staff, students and leadership of those institutions. It is important to ensure supports for students who do not have a strong command of English are made available not just to students but to others. I am aware much work has been done on this by the education and training boards, ETBs, especially.

There is urgent clarity required with regard to the SUSI grants scheme. At the moment, applications are being made under SUSI. Normally, the students would be caught because of the residency requirement as they have not resided here for a sufficient number of years. There needs to be clarity provided pretty quickly on whether Ukrainian students will be able to qualify for student grant support. If that is the case, there are obviously going to be implications for other students who may not satisfy the residency requirement and urgency is required in respect of the policy having been fully thought through. Recognition of qualifications is going to be especially important. I ask of the Minister of State's office that regarding Ukrainian arrivals who have teaching qualifications, pressure be applied to the Teaching Council to make decisions quickly. We have some highly qualified people here and the council must move quickly, particularly in areas where we have a teaching skills shortage and these teachers could be of enormous benefit. It is important we get clarity in those spaces.

Many Ukrainian students are continuing to pursue their course with their home university but are doing it in an online environment.

It is essential that wherever the displaced people from Ukraine end up, and some are in hotels and so on, they have access to the necessary laptops and other equipment and adequate broadband to ensure that they are able access the courses being delivered online from their home universities. Certainly, I know there are moves with regard to the provision of student accommodation over the summer but we need to look beyond that because, obviously, that is only going to be a summer provision for those students. There will have to be clarity as to what will happen when the academic year resumes in the autumn.

One thing I also think is very important is that there are obviously a number of Russian and Belarusian students in our higher education institutions who, in most cases, want no hand, act or part in Putin's war. It is important that there is an awareness of those students and that any attempt to discriminate against them is not allowed to manifest itself. It is important that we continue to have a very open and tolerant higher education environment.

One thing I ask the Minister of State's Department to consider is its role and that of the sector on helping to rebuild Ukraine. When Ukraine wins this war, which it has to do, there will have to be a huge requirement for rebuilding its education system right from the start. In many cases, schools, colleges and universities have been damaged or destroyed but there are also going to be policy areas in which Ukraine will need help. I ask that the Minister of State's Department start to put in place a strategy to look at how Ireland can contribute toward the rebuilding of Ukraine whenever this dreadful and terrible war finally ends.

I will turn to the issue of core funding. I welcome the Minister of State's statement today, following on from his statement in this House yesterday, around finally addressing the issue of higher education funding. It is absolutely critical that we cannot let it go on any further. Those in the sector are tired of hearing this will be the year it will be addressed. I am even conscious of the paragraph where the Minister of State talked about how "the new funding and reform framework will be provided to the Oireachtas Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science ... and will be published along with the DG Reform sponsored economic assessment ... and the SUSI review". The question I have is when? We have been told these things are coming. The sector can no longer wait. I expressed that view to the Minister of State previously. The Minister, Deputy Harris, said we should look at cutting student fees. I have real worries about that. If we just see a cut to student fees without guarantees that a commensurate amount of funding is made available to the higher education system, our system, which is under pressure now, will only end up in a much worse situation.

It is my view that in terms of priority funding, we need to address core funding and SUSI grant reform. As the Minister of State pointed out very clearly in his contribution, a significant number of students would not benefit in any case from a cut to student fees. Those are the students who would be best supported. They mostly tend to be those experiencing socio-economic disadvantage. They would be best supported by SUSI grant reform. I wish the Minister of State well in his work. I know it is a big agenda. I need to stress to him again, however, the urgency of addressing the higher education funding crisis.

The Minister of State is very welcome. I am glad we have the opportunity today to talk about this and hopefully make some headway. I welcome the Cabinet's decision yesterday to create a new sub-committee to oversee assistance being given to people fleeing Ukraine. I trust this will provide a level of oversight which has so far been lacking.

A committee is for discussion and debate, however, and what we truly need here and now is a leader in this regard. I have called for it before and do so now again. We need one woman or man in the Government to be appointed to call the shots and be the figurehead who will co-ordinate a whole-of-government approach to providing for the refugees we have taken in. That might be a Minister for refugees or Ukraine crisis co-ordinator. It does not matter what we call him or her, but we need one person at the highest level to take responsibility and have a master plan to establish co-ordination between all Departments and efficient communication down the lines through Government agencies and services to the Ukrainian people here.

At the moment, it is not there and people are falling through the cracks. Ireland held out its hands and opened its arms to these people. Now, we must follow through. It is not good enough to pat ourselves on the back for taking X number of refugees into the country if once they get here, they are put away into hotels and student accommodation. We rely on local authorities, volunteers and businesses to take it from there. There cannot be any passing the buck on this one. We are talking about people's lives here and it is simply too important.

When it comes to the continuation of studies for Ukrainian students, this surely must be a priority. Many of Ukraine's universities operate or teach their courses through English. English language proficient students must be allowed places in our third-level institutes and be allowed to continue their studies as soon as possible. Those who are not currently proficient in English surely cannot be discriminated against. Do we need Ukrainian course translators or personal translators? Should our third-level institutions be offering regular high-intensity free lessons in English as a foreign language to get students up to scratch in order that they may continue their studies? There are ways of doing this. The only way we cannot go about it is to leave it up to the people on the ground and to the Ukrainian students themselves to investigate what options are available, or leave it to retired language teachers to offer their spare time to come into hotels and hold classes. The people on the ground are doing Trojan work. This is too big for that to be our response. We need a synchronised Government response. We need a Minister.

Of course, when it comes to our higher and further education systems, they were not without issue even prior to the war in Ukraine. Universities, technological institutes and colleges have long raised the issue of lack of funding as a major stumbling block when it comes to the carrying out of their functions. I understand that the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science has been examining the future funding of higher and further education over the past few months. We all look forward to the report that will be prepared on foot of that. It seems that the wishes of most of the witnesses thus far can be summed up by the phrase "more capital funding". It would seem that we are lagging behind other member states in this regard, particularly in research and development funding. I would like to think we can examine more specific solutions, however, rather than simply raiding the Exchequer.

One such method of funding, which is detailed in the Cassells report, relates to what are known as "income-contingent student loans". Before the term conjures up the bogeyman of American-style crippling student debt in Senators' minds, allow me to go into the system. Income-contingent loans are automatically deducted from the graduate's paycheck on the basis of his or her monthly earnings. This makes them low to zero for low earners, and payments only increase as earnings increase. They are, therefore, designed to be affordable. The income-contingent deal is, therefore, unlike other forms of debt. Implementing a system of this kind could funnel millions of euro into the education sector from the business sector via graduates in a low-impact and sustainable manner. So far, however, the desire seems to be for a fully taxpayer-funded system. While this may seem attractive because it provides access to education at no upfront cost to the student, it is ultimately the most regressive approach as it entails the biggest transfer of resources from those who have not benefitted from a higher education, the lower-paid and those who have the better pay. After all, there is no such thing as public money - only taxpayers' money.

While we are still in need of a Minister with responsibility for refugees, we do have a Minister with responsibility for further and higher education. As the Minister, Deputy Harris, and the Minister of State approach the two-year anniversary of their posts, the future funding of third-level education still looms large as the enigma they must crack. We eagerly anticipate what will come. I thank both the Minister of State and the Minister. Both of them have probably been the most progressive Ministers I have seen in a portfolio for a long number of years. I really want to put that on the record of the House.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins. It is great to be talking about the measures that have been put in place to support students from Ukraine who are coming to Ireland. We are not just saying it; we are doing it. We can see this in every town and village in Ireland. The supports are in place and volunteers are helping out in all the centres.

There has been real accelerated change under the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. New technological universities are being rolled out into each region. That means education is accessible in most towns in every county across Ireland. That was commenced under the former Minister of State, Mary Mitchell O’Connor. There is also reform of the CAO. Students applying this year see further and higher education options along with apprenticeships. It is incredible that this is happening this year and it all follows the establishment of the brand new Department.

There also has been support for students and researchers through the Health Research Board, the Irish Research Council and Science Foundation Ireland. That has led to a trust in science, which ensured that we had such a high level of take-up of the vaccine. I cannot overestimate the work that has been done, particularly through schools over the past 20 years, with Science Foundation Ireland, SFI. That trust has passed through. Professors like Luke O’Neill and Kingston Mills, who speak to us regularly, have become household names. That is trust in our experts and in science that comes from the investment at primary, secondary and third levels.

Now we face the devastating war in Ukraine and the millions fleeing conflict. Last week, Roscommon was fortunate when the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee paid a visit. We were able to visit the Donamon Fáilte Centre outside of Roscommon town. The Divine Word Missionaries have provided the premises for use as a centre for people coming from Ukraine. They are working with Roscommon County Council and with Shannette Budhai from the Roscommon Volunteer Centre. Moreover, the Roscommon Lions Club has donated over €10,000 to the families based there. It is down to the volunteers and local authorities who have to fund these centres and support the people there.

I met young men and women, some of whom were medical students, and doctors, paediatricians, software engineers. I met young mothers with their babies who travelled thousands of miles to find sanctuary in County Roscommon and who left fathers behind. It is the incredible resilience and strength of these people that I so admire. We spoke through translators because access to language is a huge challenge. We must be able to understand one another.

A young man told us he would never forget what Ireland has done for them but I believe that it is we in Ireland who will be enriched by the people coming to our country for shelter. These people wish to contribute to our community, to work as soon as they are able, and to be able to say thank you by their actions, as well as their words.

We must also support students at primary, secondary and third level. We need English language supports in schools and at third level. This is something the Minister, Deputy Foley, has spoken about. I welcome the one-stop-shop for all third level universities which the Minister of State mentioned, which will be hosted by Maynooth University that is co-ordinated through the Irish Universities Association, IUA, and the Technological Higher Education Association, THEA. People will be funded there to support students. It will be sort of like a help desk. It is not admissions – I understand that – but hopefully there will be admissions personnel within the universities who will also work with us.

There is great demand in healthcare and there are many challenges in recruitment and retention. The deans of the medical schools are currently undertaking an assessment of the programmes in the medical schools in Ukraine. It is about how can they align Irish students’ programme with that which obtains in Ukraine, as well as a recognition of the medical and dentistry qualifications. That will enable and encourage us to facilitate students to continue their studies here.

Through the Government's recognition of people from Ukraine as citizens of Ireland under the EU International Protection Act, we recognise that they have the same access to work and education. This requires a whole-of-government response. We have already discussed recognising students from Ukraine and SUSI supports, which are increased by €200 this year. This means these students coming from Ukraine also will be able to access these supports. The eligible thresholds increased by €1,000 and the qualifying distance from universities and colleges has been reduced from 45 km to 30 km, which means more students and their families will benefit. It is crucial that these things will make a difference to the lives of people who will be here with us in Ireland. Then there is the cost of living fund and I note provision for the student assistance fund is more than €18.5 million for this year alone. There are student assistance desks for student welfare. When we were able to visit universities, we were able to talk to the student unions on the importance of this fund.

I have some questions for the Minister of State. There are colleges of education in many towns and villages. The ETBs support forums in each local authority. How are these county liaison committees and the education and training boards working with local authorities? Is the Department getting regular updates? I also have heard that English-language assistance measures are being put in place, perhaps with adult literacy tutors. Can the Minister of State speak about how that might be rolled out within the ETBs and the challenges that the tutors and trainers there might face?

The Minister of State mentioned how there are more than 25,000 people here with us now, of whom two thirds are female and one third are young people under 18 years of age. This is a whole-of-government approach. Will the Department work with other Departments, including the Department of Social Protection, to perhaps look at a version of the rural social scheme, RSS, a one-year scheme to encourage young women to get involved with flexible hours in the local community? They might also be able to work towards a qualification. We have discussed the recognition of qualifications, which Senator Malcolm Byrne also raised, and that is crucial.

Is the Department working with the Department of Transport on rural transport? How are these people going to get to school or college? I spoke earlier about the Connecting Ireland rural mobility plan. Will we have updates on that? How will we connect people who might be in centres outside urban areas to link in with our colleges?

Finally, I thank the Minister of State for his time. I have heard the requests around a national liaison person who would co-ordinate between all the different Departments. Can the Minister enlighten us on how the Department is receiving updates? I am aware that the Cabinet receives regular updates from Ukraine as well.

When I read the subject of this debate, I wondered whether it was statements on third level funding and the costs of going to college for Ukrainian students. I wondered where the commas were. I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House to discuss this wide range of topics, each of which could have taken up an entire debate on its own.

The situation around Ukraine is complex and ever-evolving. No one knows how or when it will end or what it will look like. I commend the Department on all the work that is being done on that in trying to support and facilitate Ukrainian students coming here. The helpline is incredibly useful and very worthwhile. Are there projections available on how many Ukrainian students will join Irish universities? What are the plans for Ukrainian academic staff and how will they be facilitated?

Under the European Higher Education Area, EHEA, statement which the Minister signed on behalf of Ireland, we will be bound to make provision to allow Ukrainian students complete studies here once they have commenced. It is really welcome and I commend the Department on signing that. Has the Department done work with the Department of Finance on the cost of this and how that will be provided for? We talk a lot about the cost of living and of going to third level. There are additional costs around travel, accommodation, laptops, books and materials. Are there plans for a separate funding stream or something through SUSI, for example, that would help Ukrainian students with those additional costs? I have no doubt that the community will step in to support those students, as we have seen throughout the country, but will there be a specific funding stream apart from the waiving of fees and so on?

There may also be Russian students coming here to look for education, fleeing to Ireland as the conflict continues. Has there been any conversation around support for Russian students who might come here?

On third level funding, I note the Minister's recent contribution at the Teachers Union of Ireland, TUI, conference covered the issue of funding for the technological university sector. Does the Minister of State have more information on how that funding model will be structured and maintained? There are a lot of plans afoot for funding models and what it will all look like. That was the first time I heard the Minister talk about it so I wonder if the Minister of State has any further details.

I will move on to the costs of going to college. In the first two years of the lifetime of this Government the mood music was that fees were too high - post Brexit, we have the highest fees in Europe - and that that was going to change. That was the impression many people in the sector were under and it was certainly the impression the Minister gave. Over the past few weeks that has become a lot more restricted. There has been less talk of it and we seem to be dancing around whether fees will be reduced in any way, manner or form. I have said this many times and I will say it here: either you believe further and higher education is a public good benefitting all of society or you do not. There are no ifs, buts or education cuts about it. It is a basic principle. We cannot on the one hand talk about skills shortages and the fact we do not have enough doctors or people in the pipeline for various things while also having the highest fees in Europe, which are a barrier to people studying. I was in the Chamber earlier when Deputy Rabbitte took a question on the Minister of State's behalf about funding and costs for graduate entry medicine. That sum of €16,000 a year is a colossal amount of money. It is €64,000 overall for doctors, which we do not have enough of. That is crazy.

Reference was made to income-contingent loans. When I was in the student movement, we did lots of reports on this based on international evidence. I am sure the Minister of State's own reports will reflect this as well. These loans result in crippling debt. Young people are already faced with not being able to reach many of the milestones we would have previously considered perfectly normal, things like being able to buy a home, to start a family at a certain age and so on. An enormous amount of evidence, from New Zealand all the way over to America, shows that crippling student debt hinders that even further. We already have a cost-of-living crisis. It would be unconscionable and incomprehensible for this Government to even contemplate income-contingent loans and burdening students further with that debt.

The Minister of State says there is a very clear way forward but it has been six years since we got the Cassells report. I suppose we can all wait another couple of weeks but it has been six years now. This report has gone around Europe and has been sitting there for quite some time. I know we are talking about a huge amount of money but what is the way forward? We keep coming in here and discussing this, saying we have to go forward and there has to be a funding solution and so on. The whole thing is creaking at the seams. We keep being told something is going to be done but what is it? When are we going to find out? When is the sector going to know what the funding model is and how it will be sustainably managed? Without a further and higher education sector, this country will not be able to function. I hope the Minister of State can take that back to Cabinet. We could really do with an answer at some point as to what the actual funding solution is going to be.

I thank the four contributors. We have taken note of everything they contributed to the statements here today and will follow up on some of the queries raised. As we move forwards towards the Estimates process, we will be working with colleagues to advance the priorities of our Departments with regard to funding reform and support for Ukrainian students, as well as all other students. The challenges faced by us are being faced by other European countries as well. They are not unique to us and we have to learn from one another's experiences.

Senator Malcolm Byrne has raised the Cassells report issue on a number of occasions, as have other Senators. We aired this issue here yesterday and everybody mentioned it again today. It is a priority for the Government. That might ring a little hollow but it is being actively worked on and it is something we discuss regularly, weekly, within our Department. It is not the case that nothing is being done about it. It will be a significant improvement and a significant amount of money so there has to be a process. I understand that it has taken a long time.

Regarding English-language provision, Senator Dolan mentioned the 16 education and training boards. We have tasked them with that provision and the Senator is looking for feedback and an update on it. We will get that information for her and circulate it to all four Senators who are here.

Some 59 Irish students were studying in Ukraine at the time of the invasion. I understand 52 were studying medicine or were involved in medical studies and the remaining seven were involved in dentistry. Mention was made of Russian students. There are 154 full-time Russian students in Ireland. There are 64 full-time Ukrainian students already in Ireland. However, we do not have the full picture yet. About 25,000 people have come into the country but we do not have the full picture as to what the demand will be from people presenting to our further and higher education institutes. That is why the help desk is being set up. The Minister, Deputy Harris, has consulted with all the colleges and institutions of further education, as well as their representative bodies, to make sure everybody is on the same page. It is fair to say everybody has stepped up to the plate in their willingness and readiness to accommodate these students. Last year and the year before, by virtue of the pandemic and grade inflation, we had to find the wherewithal to provide additional college places in the high-demand courses. At a time of crisis, that is, the pandemic, the system was able to respond positively. I am quite confident the system and all our institutions and stakeholders will be able to react positively in this regard as well.

Before we proceed, I welcome the visitors in the Visitors Gallery. I thank them for their visit to Leinster House and hope they have had a good day here.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar fionraí ar 1.28 p.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 3.33 p.m.
Sitting suspended at 1.28 p.m. and resumed at 3.33 p.m.
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