Vote 45 - Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science (Supplementary)

No apologies have been received. The meeting has been convened to consider the 2020 Supplementary Estimate for Vote 45 - Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, which was referred to the committee by Dáil Éireann.

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Niall Collins, and his official to the meeting this afternoon. My thanks to the Minister of State, his officials and the Department for the briefing documentation they have provided to the meeting. As the Minister of State is present, the official should refrain from speaking in public session.

I will now ask the Minister of State to make his opening statement. Members can ask general questions on Vote 45. The first questioner up is Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh. We will hear first the opening statement from the Minister of State.

I thank the Chairman and the members of the committee. I am grateful for the opportunity to address the committee as part of its consideration of the Supplementary Estimate for the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science for 2020. The Minster, Deputy Harris, sends his apologies for not being in attendance today and has asked that I represent the Department in his absence. I propose to give a brief initial overview of the Supplementary Estimate and I will be happy to address any questions that members may have.

By way of background the Minister, Deputy Harris, was before this committee as recently as last month as part of the 2020 Further Revised Estimates process. At that point Vote 45 for this Department was established and €2.3 billion was moved from the Department of Education in line with the functions that transferred to this Department along with approval of some €173 million in additional funding for the Vote. It was highlighted to the committee at that stage that the intention was to return to seek consideration of additional funding required for a once-off student support initiative. The idea was that this would be dealt with subsequently through the Supplementary Estimates process and this is reason we are here today. The 2020 Supplementary Estimate currently before the committee relates exclusively to the additional €43.5 million expenditure from the Vote in 2020 to implement the once-off Covid-19 student assistance fund for the academic year 2020-2021 announced as part of budget 2021 and agreed at the Government meeting of 17 November.

The Department has been conscious of the impact the pandemic has had on our students. To ensure the safety of our students and staff in further and higher education, the majority of college tuition is being provided online for this semester and this is being further considered in line with public health advice. This level of uncertainty and the additional pressure on our third level students have been difficult and require significant financial, operational and well-being supports. In recognition of the challenges facing third level students, the Government has approved once-off funding to provide additional financial assistance in this academic year. This is projected to cost some €43.5 million based on current estimated student numbers. To pave the way for addressing this uncertainty and pressure, financial and mental, on our students a range of measures have been provided in 2020 through this once-off ring-fenced additional funding provision. This once-off fund in 2020 will provide financial assistance at this unprecedented time to approximately 170,000 students in our third level sector. This funding builds on the measures announced as part of Covid financial supports for the sector in July. Elements of this funding assisted students through the provision of laptops for disadvantaged students and increasing the student assistance fund.

The Department has engaged intensively with the Higher Education Authority, Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, and key stakeholders such as the Irish Universities Association, the Technological Higher Education Association and Technological University Dublin in developing this process. As part of this process it has been critical to acknowledge the limited timeframe for distribution of this funding in 2020 and the necessity that existing processes need to be utilised. Officials in the Department continue to engage with these stakeholders in the roll-out of the funding. Measures are being put in place to mitigate the risks of duplicate payments and to ensure appropriate levels of governance in line with the guidelines for SUSI and the higher education providers.

This once-off ring-fenced funding allocation for 2020 will not have any long-term impact on SUSI grant provision or other student services and will not alter the review of SUSI which is being developed. The Covid student assistance fund will provide financial assistance to all full-time third level students in publicly funded institutions in recognition of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Therefore, in cases of more than one third level student per family, each student will be entitled to receive the full €250 amount. I thank the committee again for its consideration of this Supplementary Estimate and I am happy to engage on any issues which members wish to raise.

As I said at the outset, the first questioner is Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh. She will be followed by Deputy Alan Farrell, who is not here, and Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan, who is not here. They will be followed by Deputy Marc Ó Cathasaigh, who will be the second questioner.

My thanks to the Chairman and the Minister of State. I wish to clarify some things. It seems €18.5 million of the €43.5 million needed to fund the support will come under the B11 heading. That is the budget line for SUSI. Will the Minister of State confirm that this is in addition to, and totally separate from, the €20 million in additional support for SUSI announced in the budget?

That is right, yes.

It is in addition.

It is in addition, yes.

That is good. Today, we are considering the supplementary sum of €43.5 million in addition to the expenditure of €220 million. However, the initial announcement on 13 October in parallel with budget 2021 was for €50 million. Were savings made in that? Why is there a difference between the two figures?

It is estimated that it will require approximately €50 million. This is the figure required by way of Supplementary Estimate to fund the €50 million. The remaining funds will come from other savings within the Department.

What are those savings from within the Department?

I have to rephrase that, based on advice from officials; it is an Estimate. The figure we are discussing for approval is an Estimate and the €50 million is an Estimate. We will not have a final outturn until it all washes through the system. That is being administered through the Higher Education Authority. I was incorrect to say it is being funded by savings across other subheads.

That is okay. Are we dealing with €43.5 million or the €50 million?

It is €50 million. We are passing the Estimate for €43.5 million but it may require up to €50 million.

For clarity, if it requires €50 million, must we come back again?

We expect there will be some savings in areas such as the national training fund. The funds needed by way of the Supplementary Estimate, the €43.5 million, according to the best estimate of the Department at this time.

The national training fund is for apprenticeships, is it?

I have concerns around the take up of that, as I know the Minister of State and the Minister have. It is almost a defeatist attitude if we are saying that we will save that much on it at this stage.

I will move on to the eligibility of all full-time third level students. When the Minister of State uses the term "full-time third-level education", he is not including any of the students under his own brief as Minister of State with responsibility for skills and further education. Will students on full-time post leaving certificate, PLC, courses receive the support? Would someone doing a certificate in child care or training as a special needs assistant in a community school in Mayo be included, for example?

Students attending the seven universities, 11 institutes of technology, the Technological University of Dublin, St. Angela's College, Sligo, Mary Immaculate College, Limerick, the National College of Art and Design, the Royal Irish Academy of Music, the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, the Royal Irish Academy, the Dublin Dental Hospital, the National College of Ireland, University of Maynooth, Carlow College, Marino Institute of Education and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, will be able to avail of it. Anyone availing of a SUSI grant, which includes those attending post leaving certificate courses, will get the benefit of the €250 top-up. Those who are not in receipt of SUSI grants will not receive it.

How was it decided who would and would not get that?

The Department's rationale was that it would apply to students of colleges funded by the State through the Higher Education Authority.

It causes me concern. Many students from lower income families take up PLC courses and other types of courses. It concerns me that they might be excluded from this. Will the Minister of State re-examine this?

It is a fair point but, equally, many of those students will be in receipt of different training allowances or other allowances when they are undertaking PLC courses.

I appreciate some do but some do not. It should be looked at. Take someone in Louth who is studying in Belfast or in Donegal studying in Derry, will they get it?

If they get SUSI, yes.

It does not matter where they study, then. Is that also the case for someone studying abroad, say in The Netherlands?

Once they are in receipt of SUSI, they will get the €250 regardless of where they are studying. Someone who is attending college in the North or elsewhere who is not in receipt of SUSI, will not.

Again, that is an anomaly when we are trying to encourage an all-island approach to education.

Where someone is a final-year student and is in the category of having everything paid, how will that be done?

Again, that is down to each college. If the committee approves today's Vote and the Supplementary Estimate passes, the Department will place the funds with the Higher Education Authority which is working in the background in preparation for all this with each of the colleges mentioned. Each institution will decide locally how it will approach issues such as those raised by the Deputy, where a fourth year student who is not on a SUSI grant has all of his or her fees paid. Ultimately, in that example, that college will have to do a cash refund.

Is there a time line by which that will be done, and the cash refunds issued?

I expect it will be in the first quarter of the new year. We are running into Christmas now. Once this Vote is approved, SUSI will administer its side and the colleges will receive the instruction and the funds from the Higher Education Authority.

The Department will intervene if someone is not getting paid, albeit that it is giving the colleges autonomy on this.

I apologise, I must leave now to attend a meeting of the Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. I thank the Minister of State.

Will the Minister of State clarify the breakdown of the Supplementary Estimate before us, please?

Of €43.5 million, €24.4 million will go to subhead B.4, the general grants to universities, institutes of technology and other designated institutes of higher education, namely those I listed some moments ago; €600,000 is allocated to subhead B.9 which is grants for certain third-level institutions; and B.11 which is the SUSI subhead of €18.5 million.

The Minister of State set out the rationale in response to Deputy Conway-Walsh's question about bringing in as many students as possible for the rebate. In the circumstances, the rebate is to be welcomed, as has it has been at previous committee meetings on the subject attended by the Minister of State, the Minister and the heads of universities. However, there is an ongoing campaign at third level institutions to increase the budget, which is why I asked for a breakdown of the figures. While the students have a legitimate concern, as illustrated at the last meeting, there is a very significant fixed cost in our third-level institutions which does not change whether students are receiving tuition in person or online.

I wanted to focus on hardship or welfare supports for students, particularly where parents had lost employment or are furloughed because of Covid. Is it envisaged that supplementary supports will be available through third-level institutions to support students who might find themselves in that position, either in the overall or supplementary budgets? That will include a mix of students, including those who may or may not be in receipt of a SUSI grant.

Earlier in the year, the student assistance fund was slightly more than doubled to €20 million, which is a significant sum. There is also provision within SUSI for a change of circumstance.

All members, as practising public representatives, will be aware of that. In a welcome move a number of months ago, the Minister, Deputy Harris, announced a review of SUSI rates for next year. I presume the review will include eligibility criteria. If there is a review, everything is up for review. There has been no significant review of SUSI for a long time. Outside the review, I believe an additional €20 million has been allocated to SUSI for next year.

We clearly want to avoid students dropping out owing to financial hardship. I am pleased to hear about the additional funding.

Deputy Conway-Walsh spoke about people outside the jurisdiction. I ask the Minister of State to let the secretariat know how many students outside the jurisdiction are in receipt of a SUSI grant and the rebate. It would be helpful for discussion in the context of a SUSI review for next year. It would certainly inform us.

It is expected that about 170,000 students will benefit from this and approximately 70,000 of those are in receipt of a SUSI grant.

We can generalise the discussion on the sustainability of funding overall. We do not need to get into the specifics because it is a broader debate. Last week we had discussions on funding with the third level institutions. We have had these discussions before. When the Minister of State was in opposition, his party and mine raised the issue of funding for third level institutions. While the additional funds are welcome, particularly the initiative to give something back to students, having fees at all is an issue. I was in my first year in third level in 1995-96 when the then Fine Gael, Labour Party and Democratic Left Government with a Labour Party Minister for Education abolished fees. They slowly came back until they were formalised, I think in the Thirty-first Dáil.

I would like a meaningful discussion and actual Government action on the issue with the agreement, I hope, of all parties in the House to recognise the need to bridge the funding gap, and to ensure we maintain our high position in the league tables. We should broaden out third level education and qualifications beyond universities to other third level institutions, apprenticeships and everything else. We need a conversation and I would appreciate the Minister of State's views.

The Minister, Deputy Harris, and I have both referred to the matter. It has been referred to at this committee. This is either our third or fourth appearance at this committee. In the Dáil and Seanad we have had statements on further and higher education, during which the matter articulated by the Deputy has been raised by other speakers. It is the elephant in the room. The Cassells report was published some time ago. It is with the European Commission at the moment.

I understand a review will come back next year.

We understand it is due early next year. It will be a big conversation for everybody and a big decision for Government.

I welcome the Minister of State and thank him. The Estimates are straightforward. Having read and understood them, I think this is welcome. We all wish we could do even more for students but this is a welcome measure. As Deputy Alan Farrell mentioned, we need to see the fees issue resolved in the longer term.

To stray slightly away from the Estimates, my questions are on mental health supports in our third level institutions. We need to aim to remove some of the financial pressures on students this year due to lack of part-time work and additional costs. Third level students have had an experience of college this year, which has been unlike any other year. The budget contained welcome announcements on mental health funding. I would like to see that followed through specifically into the third level area.

The Minister of State referred to some of the savings to come from the National Training Fund. It was inevitable that the full amount has not been spent given the Covid context. We are also aware of the programme for Government commitments on the need for housing and the need to retrofit housing, leading to an increased need for tradespeople in the coming years. This is outside today's discussion and the Minister of State may not be able to provide detail on it. Are we planning ahead to address that shortage in tradespeople? Looking ahead, do we foresee additional spending to get back to where we know we need to be after this?

On mental health supports, as part of the July Covid funding there was a complete package of €168 million. It was broken down into various component parts, including €20 million for student assistance funding and a scheme to purchase 17,000 laptops. I do not have the exact amount for mental health supports but I think it was €3.4 million to fund additional mental health supports in each of our institutions through their support services to engage additional psychologists and counsellors to provide extra capacity for students, particularly in the pandemic year.

Our agricultural colleges were raised in this committee and in the Dáil and Seanad. The agricultural colleges do not come under our remit but come under the remit of the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine. In recent days, the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine has made €200,000 available for a hardship fund for students attending agricultural colleges to cover mental health supports and the purchase of IT equipment or Internet connectivity. It is basically a catch-all fund to support students who are experiencing hardship and do not have the financial wherewithal to purchase the supports and the IT equipment needed.

We are very conscious of the shortage of people in the trades. The apprenticeship action plan is being drafted at present and will be published early in the new year. It is envisaged that a number of new apprenticeships will be offered. A €3,000 incentive is being offered to employers to take on an apprentice, with I believe €1,000 on signing on and €2,000 after a year - it might be vice versa. That incentive has been very popular and has been extended to the middle of next year when it will be reviewed. It has been quite attractive in encouraging employers to take on apprentices. I believe about 700 apprentices have been engaged through that incentive to date.

I welcome this funding, which represents a positive development. Earlier the Minister of State mentioned an additional €20 million for SUSI grants.

That is certainly welcome but, on a connected matter, will the threshold regarding the amount of money students in part-time work can earn be increased? I understand it is currently €4,500, which is very low. This also leads to a disincentive for students to find part-time work to help fund their education. The Minister of State may not have that information here today but I would be grateful if it could be provided in writing.

On the issue with which we are presented today, students who get the SUSI grant get a top-up of €250 while students who do not get that grant get a credit note of €250. There is a difficulty with that. A constituent contacted me on this matter. It is welcome that the students will receive this payment of €250 before Christmas but my constituent raised the issue of qualifications for this payment. It has been stated that this money will be given via a top-up in the SUSI maintenance grant or by way of credit note for students who are not in receipt of this payment. The student concerned will receive a €250 credit note which can be used for on-campus services or any outstanding fees to be paid to third level institutions. This year alone, this student has paid a €224 student levy contribution to the National University of Ireland, Galway. He also pays rent of €475 a month in Galway. He is therefore not in a position to use that once-off student support grant of €250, which would be of great help to him.

The sense I get from him is that, by giving some students the €250 cash sum on top of the regular maintenance grant, another barrier to education has effectively been created. Most students, regardless of the SUSI fees grant, will have their fees paid off by now either with money earned working full time throughout the pandemic or with a loan they have secured. Campuses around the country are closed and there is little to no hope of colleges reopening after Christmas. On top of this, for final year students like my constituent, a €250 credit note will not mean much as such students may not be returning to full-time education next year once they graduate. Will the Minister of State look at this issue to see if something can be done in the interest of fairness? The €250 is obviously very welcome but, in order to improve the situation for some students such as my constituent, I would be grateful if the Minister of State could look at the matter.

I thank the Deputy. If I understand the circumstances she has outlined correctly, this student is a fourth-year student who has paid all of his fees in their entirety and is not in receipt of a SUSI grant. In that instance, the student will get a cash refund of €250 from his college. It is relatively straightforward. By giving students who are not in receipt of a SUSI grant a credit against their next semester fees, future fees or other on-campus charges, we are trying to avoid having to create a whole new payments system and all of the grief involved in obtaining technology, setting up a system, the tendering process and hiring. We are trying to do this in the most streamlined and straightforward fashion to give the students who are entitled and eligible the benefit of this money as early as possible. In the case the Deputy has cited, a cash refund will issue.

I thank the Minister of State. I appreciate his response.

I thank the Minister of State for being here. When the announcement was made that the Department of Education of Skills was to be split up and that the Department in which the Minister of State now serves was to be established, I was not convinced. I did not make any public comment at the time because I was interested to see how it would work out. I am, however, genuinely enthused as to how it has worked out. It was a good move. We are now putting an emphasis on this aspect of education, which was previously swamped in the larger Department. The traditional Department of Education can now focus on the primary and secondary sectors and on other bits under its remit while we can speak to the Minister, Deputy Harris, and to the Minister of State regarding this specific area. I believe he acknowledged in his contribution that a number of policy areas had been allowed to drag and had not really been tackled. The funding issue is central to that.

While I appreciate the reason we are here, I might ask the Minister of State a general question or probe him a little bit more. He has mentioned the Cassells report. Did he say that it had gone to the European Commission?

It is due back. I do not want to put the Minister of State in the position of making predictions with regard to how we should proceed but there are certainly a number of pinch points in the system. Every single third level institution and college of further education says that it is underfunded. Meanwhile, there is a feeling that there is too great a burden on the individual student or on his or her family.

As was alluded to earlier, those of our political persuasion have a vision of free education or education funded exclusively by the taxpayer. The previous Government ruled out any sort of student loans scheme quite strongly. I do not mean to put the Minister of State on the spot but can he give us a sense of how we could work together as a committee to tease through these solutions? There is no quick fix or easy answer. It is not as simple as saying that a given ideological position is much better than any other. I remember when this idea first came to the fore, which I myself benefited from, the argument was made that families who would have spent money on third level education would spend it instead on fee-paying schools to which they would not previously have had access. The argument was that it would only benefit the middle class and that it would not open third level education up to a whole cohort of students who had previously been locked out. It is arguable whether that was actually the case.

As to the future funding of third level education generally, will the Minister of State comment as to how effective this new Department will be in driving that debate? Will he give us some indication as to where he feels we need to go?

We are straying a little bit away from the Estimates but I will allow the Minister of State to answer if he is so inclined.

I knew I was straying. That is why I was trying to be nice.

To answer the Deputy's second question first, I am probably constrained in providing an opinion as it would only be my own personal opinion. I do not want to do a disservice to the process that will arrive at the ultimate decision. Suffice it to say that the Minister, Deputy Harris, has said on the record a number of times that this is the elephant in the room. The issue has been knocking around for a long time. We all know there are no magic money trees in the real world, or at least most of us do. These are the decisions that will have to be taken. The Cassells report lays out a number of options, as the Deputy will know. Different people will have different takes on it. I will not give the Deputy my person opinion but, suffice it to say that the Minister has said, on a number of occasions, that this is an issue on which this Department will ultimately be judged.

What are the demographic pressures on the Department? Does the Minister of State have a sense of how many more young people, or people in any other age bracket, will be entering third level education? Will more strain be put on the system?

We can get the Deputy a note on that.

The issue is that the numbers do not stand still.

There are demographic pressures. Small increases related to demographic changes were built into our budget for next year. We will get the Deputy a detailed note on the matter.

I thank the Minister of State very much for coming in. I welcome the Supplementary Estimate. We all recognise that extra money is needed in light of this exceptional year. There has been talk about money being spent on mental health services. I believe all of us in this room agree that getting third level students back on campus must be a top priority for this committee and for universities. We had the provost of Trinity College Dublin and the president of the National University of Ireland, Galway, here last week and I believe they recognised that.

I want to make several points. One of the matters mentioned by the provost and president was that when it comes to deciding whether remote learning should take place, the decision is to be made by the individual lecturer. Obviously, individual lecturers should have a significant say in this regard but I am concerned that they would have ultimate control over whether students come back on campus or continue with remote learning. Fortunately, this is an historic day because we have seen the first people on the island vaccinated against Covid-19. I hope that early next year we will have vaccination rolled out, which will ensure people who are less vulnerable, such as young students, can get back on campus. What is the view of the Minister of State, the Department and the officials on trying to ensure that we get more people back on campus? Is it an important priority for them? What does the Minister of State believe can be done by the Department in addition to what the universities are doing?

I thank the Deputy for the question. Approximately two weeks ago, the Minister and I held a Zoom conference with the presidents and heads of all of the universities, institutes of technology and institutions funded through the HEA. The main part of the discussion related to a request by us to the colleges, insofar as possible in light public health guidance, the public health advice available and the levels we are at in the living with Covid plan, to afford more on-campus time, particularly to first years, and even if this does not entail lectures or tutorials, to try to roster and schedule students on campus more to show them the facilities and make them aware of the depth of services and facilities available.

The Deputy is right in what he says about the vaccine. We are all watching developments eagerly day in, day out. It is giving us huge hope and optimism about a return to normality across so many levels including further and higher education. I caution everybody on their optimism. When the vaccine starts to roll out here, and the indication seems to be that it will be early in the new year, we will all have to avail of two doses two weeks apart. We will be doing the equivalent of vaccinating the population twice, so it will be a big logistical operation. I hope that with the collective minds, will and energy of everybody involved, it will help students to get back to normality and enjoy more student life than they have heretofore, particularly with regard to sport.

I thank the Minister of State. He, like me, represents a constituency in which there is a university and many third level students. A point raised by the president of NUI Galway last week was that he had a concern about large lecture halls with more than 100 students. I fully appreciate the risk associated with this and how we could not do it but there are feasible methods whereby we can break up classes into smaller groups. Many classes, particularly those comprising postgraduate students, have smaller numbers. The Department needs to ensure that the universities and third level institutions are kept on their toes. We cannot have a situation in the new year whereby simply because a lecturer says he or she cannot do it or does not want to do it, that is accepted by the institution. I thank the Minister of State for his comment. I know he will keep working on this issue.

I thank the Minister of State and his officials for their constructive engagement. This concludes our consideration of the 2020 Supplementary Estimate