Institutes of Technology

Questions (45)

Matt Shanahan

Question:

45. Deputy Matt Shanahan asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science his plans or funding to support for ongoing education at Waterford Institute of Technology in view of the decision by the college to provide nearly all learning remotely due to the inability in capital facilities to provide social distancing; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22599/20]

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Written answers (Question to Further and Higher Education)

Since the onset of Covid-19 in March, the Department, the Higher Education Authority and SOLAS have collaborated with key stakeholders from the sector to address the financial impacts of Covid 19 on the sector, including costs associated with the safe commencement of the 2020/21 academic year in line with Public Health advice.

To alleviate the financial impact I have allocated €168 million in funding to support further and higher education institutions open their doors again and additional resources to support students.

In relation to the preparation underway for the new academic year in the context of the Covid pandemic, Higher Education Institutions have been undertaking detailed planning and contingencies for re-opening and communicating these to students and learners in the interest of public health of students, staff and communities, this will entail blended learning, combining both online and onsite provision. The details of these arrangements are being finalised.

Higher Education Institutions have published their academic calendars, with information on the dates for orientation and the beginning of teaching for the autumn semester. Most have indicated in broad terms the balance of time for students between on-campus and online learning. I have highlighted the requirement for all HEIs to provide clarity to their students as soon as possible and to prioritise the overall student experience in line with public health advice.

My Department has been advised that Waterford Institute of Technology has increased on-line provision in a blended context with many activities taking place in-person and on-campus.

Apprenticeship Programmes

Questions (46)

Thomas Gould

Question:

46. Deputy Thomas Gould asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science his plans to reform the apprenticeship system; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22605/20]

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Written answers (Question to Further and Higher Education)

Apprenticeship in Ireland has undergone significant reform and expansion over the past 5 years. Pre-existing apprenticeships were reviewed and renewed and the introduction of a new model of apprenticeship has resulted in the development of 33 new consortia-led apprenticeship programmes delivered in innovative ways across all sectors of the economy. The first doctorate-level apprenticeship was launched recently and 20 further programmes are in development at various levels of the National Framework of Qualifications.

This expansion has been overseen by the enterprise-led Apprenticeship Council. The Council made structured calls for proposals for new apprenticeships in 2015 and 2017 and now accept submissions on a continuous basis.

Looking forward, the Government has set a target of 10,000 new apprentice registrations per annum by 2025. This compares against 6,177 registrations in 2019 and achieving this target will require significant focus in the Covid and post-Covid environment. I introduced a financial incentive for employers recruiting apprentices in these difficult circumstances during 2020 and my Department is now developing a new Action Plan on Apprenticeship to cover the period 2021-25.

In bringing forward a plan for the coming 5 years, I will be advancing the development of a consolidated apprenticeship system with a strong and clear model of governance. All aspects of the current system will be considered together with relevant international research to ensure that apprenticeship is best placed to respond to longer term economic needs while being flexible enough to respond to shorter term challenges.

In order to ensure the plan is well-informed and inclusive, I have launched a consultation process on key questions and challenges relevant to the apprenticeship system. The consultation paper is available on www.apprenticeship.ie and submissions are invited up to 18 September. I have asked that the plan be finalised by year end.

Technological Universities

Questions (47)

Marian Harkin

Question:

47. Deputy Marian Harkin asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the status of the Connacht, Ulster Alliance Technological University application. [22643/20]

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Written answers (Question to Further and Higher Education)

The establishment of technological universities (TUs), including a TU in the Connacht Ulster region, is an important part of the Government’s higher education policy as underscored in the Programme for Government 2020.

TUs will provide increased choices for students, an enhanced student experience and greater access for students in tackling educational disadvantage with TUs offering a broad range of higher education provision from apprenticeship to doctoral degrees. TUs will also support an increased intensity of research-informed teaching and learning and research activity which will provide increased opportunities for collaboration with industry, attraction of Foreign Direct Investment, retention and expansion of skills and delivery of regional development and socio-economic benefits.

Under the statutory framework detailed in the Technological Universities Act 2018, it is a matter, in the first instance, for the relevant Institutes of Technology participating in a TU development consortium to progress their plans and, when ready, to make an application to the Minister seeking an order establishing a TU subject to their meeting the eligibility criteria prescribed in the 2018 Act.

The Connacht Ulster Alliance of GMIT, LYIT and IT Sligo, has to date made significant progress towards meeting the relevant TU criteria and the Department understands that the Alliance plans to submit an application under the relevant legislative procedure by the end of this year.

Research and Development

Questions (48)

Denis Naughten

Question:

48. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the steps he plans to take to improve the interface between the wider research community and the Houses of the Oireachtas; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22385/20]

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Written answers (Question to Further and Higher Education)

As Minister for the newly established Department for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, I believe that a key part of my role is highlight the world leading research and innovation being carried out by our institutions and research community, and to ensure that both Government and my colleagues in the Oireachtas are informed by and engage with the research and the researchers. In recent years the Irish Research Council and Science Foundation Ireland has launched a number of initiatives to bring researchers closer to Government.

In July 2018 the Irish Research Council launched its Oireachtas Shadowing Scheme. The scheme sees some of Ireland’s most prominent researchers ‘shadowing’ members of the Oireachtas for the day in Leinster House. The scheme was developed by the Council to bridge the divide between policy-making and research and to ensure that elected representatives are supported to tap into publicly funded research. The scheme pairs a Council funded researcher with a member of the Oireachtas. The scheme is an excellent opportunity for researchers to deepen their understanding of political engagement and the policy-making system and for members of the Oireachtas to engage directly with publicly funded researchers. I would encourage my colleagues in the Oireachtas to contact the Council and take advantage of this opportunity.

Science Foundation Ireland places a particular priority on creating opportunities for the Houses of the Oireachtas staff and members to engage with SFI funded researchers over the past number of years. Many of these engagements have been arranged in close partnership with the Oireachtas and Library Research Services. The Oireachtas LRS is now a formal partner with SFI through the SFI Public Service Fellowship (launched in 2019) which will see academic researchers placed within the Oireachtas LRS (and other Government Departments) teams working side by side with colleagues there on critical areas such as climate change and the economic, social and ethical implications of technological innovation.

There have also been targeted talks by researchers, and science week events. In addition to these examples of engagement, SFI has also brought Oireachtas Committees on site visits to their research centres so that they can see, first hand, the research that is taking place in Ireland which is of relevance to the work of their Committees.

Both SFI and the IRC are creating engagement opportunities through a range of formats, and these engagements are created to expose members and staff of the Oireachtas to the excellent and impactful work research that is being carried out by academics in Ireland and to create opportunities for dialogue and relationship building with that community.

Public and Government outreach by our scientists is more important than ever in the context of COVID-19, and my Department, in consultation with all other relevant Government departments and agencies, will consider how best to further engage publicly funded researchers in the wider context as part of the development of the next national strategy for research and innovation.

Third Level Fees

Questions (49)

Verona Murphy

Question:

49. Deputy Verona Murphy asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science if student college contributions will be reduced for the 2020/2021 academic year; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22603/20]

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Written answers (Question to Further and Higher Education)

Under the Department’s free fees schemes, the Exchequer provides funding toward the tuition fee costs of eligible undergraduate Higher Education students with students paying the student contribution of €3,000 per annum and can be paid in instalments.

The state pays the contribution in full or part for an estimated 44 per cent of all students eligible for free fees funding through SUSI. The estimated cost was in the order of €180million for 2019/2020.

Student contribution funded by the state is in addition to over €340million paid for student tuition fees in 2019/20 through our free fees initiative.

The Programme for Government commits to develop a long-term sustainable funding model for higher level education. In addition I intend to specifically examine student supports to ensure all students have access to educational opportunities and supports that will help them to fulfil their potential.

While the balance of costs and benefits of Higher Education will be considered as part of the broader strategic reform of higher education funding, the impact of the Covid 19 pandemic on students and families has been the subject of immediate attention.

In July I announced €168 million in funding to support the sector and students including a €15million fund for technology supports, a doubling of the Student Assistance Fund and €5 million for mental health supports.

The pandemic has had a disproportionate effect on younger workers and those in lower paid occupations. In the July Stimulus Package we provided €100m in funding for the tertiary education and training sector to help support upskilling and reskilling, which will fund over 35,000 places in 2020.

Covid-19 requirements mean that the delivery of third level education costs more, not less. As a consequence the Government has provided a major increase in funding to meet those costs but also to significantly enhance the range of supports available to students particularly those with the least financial resources.

Research and Development

Question No. 51 answered with Question No. 22.

Questions (50)

James Lawless

Question:

50. Deputy James Lawless asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science his plans to support the development of new career pathways for early-career researchers. [22634/20]

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Written answers (Question to Further and Higher Education)

The Irish Universities Association, working with the Technological Higher Education Association, is finalising a Researcher Career Framework in consultation with Government Departments, sectorial representatives and research funders. It is seeking to increase consistency in terms and conditions across funder sources, as well as in institutional good practice in researcher career development, for example, in relation to recruitment processes, orientation and career planning. This work progresses Action 3.10 of Innovation 2020, Ireland’s national strategy for research and innovation.

Question No. 51 answered with Question No. 22.

Technological Universities

Questions (52)

Marian Harkin

Question:

52. Deputy Marian Harkin asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the status of all current technological university applications. [22656/20]

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Written answers (Question to Further and Higher Education)

The establishment of technological universities (TUs) is an important part of the Government’s higher education policy as underscored in the Programme for Government 2020.

Under the statutory framework detailed in the Technological Universities Act 2018, it is a matter, in the first instance, for the relevant Institutes of Technology participating in a TU development consortium to progress their plans and, when ready, to make an application to seeking an order establishing a TU subject to their meeting the eligibility criteria prescribed in the 2018 Act. In this context my Department understands the following to be the position in relation to the three current consortia pursuing TU designation:-

The consortium comprising Athlone IT and Limerick IT has a submission date in view for their application of October 2020.

The Connacht Ulster Alliance (CUA) consortium comprising Letterkenny IT, IT Sligo and Galway Mayo IT, is planning, subject to meeting the eligibility criteria, to submit an application by the end of this year.

The Technological University for the South East of Ireland (TUSEI) comprising IT Carlow and Waterford IT has recently appointed a highly experienced independent programme executive director, Tom Boland, to drive the project and finalise an application for TU designation by early Quarter 2 next year.

Third Level Institutions

Questions (53)

Verona Murphy

Question:

53. Deputy Verona Murphy asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science if a research project has been commissioned on sexual harassment in third-level institutions; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22604/20]

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Written answers (Question to Further and Higher Education)

On 5th April 2019 the Framework for Consent in Higher Education Institutions: “Safe, Respectful, Supportive and Positive – Ending Sexual Violence and Harassment in Irish Higher Education Institutions” was launched. The Framework aims to ensure the creation of an institutional campus culture which is safe, respectful and supportive. Institutions have a duty of care to their students and staff, and a responsibility to foster a campus culture that is clear in the condemnation of unwanted and unacceptable behaviours.

The findings emerging from the Sexual Experiences Survey 2020 (SES ) published in June 2020 by the NUI Galway Active Consent Programme in partnership with the Union of Students in Ireland are deeply concerning. Therefore, in early August, I wrote to the Presidents of the publically funded higher education institutions indicating that I wanted to prioritise the implementation of this Framework; and requested that they develop institutional action plans on tackling sexual violence and harassment, make consent classes mandatory for all incoming students, and report to the Higher Education Authority on their progress on the implementation of the Framework for Consent. In addition, I will be requesting a survey to be undertaken on harassment, sexual harassment and bullying of both staff and students in the higher education institutions.

The Framework for Consent outlined that research be undertaken on student and staff experiences in this area, and I will keep this issue under review in the light of the work already underway, and the actions I am now taking.

Further and Higher Education

Questions (54)

Matt Shanahan

Question:

54. Deputy Matt Shanahan asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science if the funding requirement for a new X-ray machine for the Waterford Institute of Technology SEAM Technology gateway will be reviewed (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22598/20]

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Written answers (Question to Further and Higher Education)

The proposal for a High Energy X-ray Computed Tomography for Additive Manufacturing, Automotive, Aerospace, & Heavy Industry was submitted to SFI under the 2018 SFI Infrastructure Programme Call.

The Infrastructure Call supports the research community in building and sustaining the required infrastructural capacity to accomplish high quality, high impact and innovative research in areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics that demonstrably enhance and underpin enterprise competitiveness and societal development in Ireland.

The proposal submitted by Waterford Institute of Technology was reviewed by an international panel of experts and was deemed to be fundable. However, due to the budget available to SFI for the programme, it has been placed on a reserve list until the end of 2020. Should further funding become available to SFI before the end of 2020 this proposal will be considered for funding along with other proposals on the reserve list.

Further and Higher Education

Questions (55)

Michael Moynihan

Question:

55. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science when laptops ordered to assist students with online and blended learning will be available to students of further education colleges; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22629/20]

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Written answers (Question to Further and Higher Education)

A fund for student devices worth €15 million was part of a €168 million package for further and higher education sectors to deal with the impacts of Covid-19. Funding of €10 million has been provided to the higher education sector and €5m to the Further Education and Training sector.

The funding is being provided to eligible Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) and ETBs (plus a number of other SOLAS-funded FET providers) in accordance with allocation models agreed with the HEA and SOLAS.

My Department has worked closely with the HEA, SOLAS, ETBI and HEANet (the entity providing connectivity and associated ICT services to education and research bodies across Ireland) to design and deliver the grant support. This funding has already allowed higher education institutions and further education institutions place a bulk order of 16,700 devices for students.

The specific arrangements for the distribution of the devices to disadvantaged students are a matter for each individual institution. HEANet is endeavouring to ensure that the laptops are available in each institution by, or as close as possible to, the start of the academic year, and deliveries are being scheduled to take account of individual start dates. Due to reopening of FET institutions generally happening in advance of the reopening of higher education, delivery of devices to those settings is being prioritised. Under the terms of the grant, devices must remain the property of the HEI/ETB, be offered to students under appropriate lending schemes, and also comply with certain conditions of sanction set down by the Office of Government Chief Information Officer in relation to security and appropriate usage.

Civil Service

Questions (56)

Denis Naughten

Question:

56. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science if he will establish a science and technology policy fellowship within the Civil Service to provide opportunities to scientists and engineers to learn first-hand policymaking and contribute their knowledge and analytical skills in policy development; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22384/20]

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Written answers (Question to Further and Higher Education)

Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) is currently running a pilot programme which is designed to attain the objectives which the Deputy sets out. The SFI Public Service Fellowship, which was launched in 2019, offers researchers a unique opportunity to be seconded to Government Departments, Agencies and the Oireachtas Library and Research Services, to work on specific research projects. The Fellowships awarded will foster innovation within the Public Sector by supporting the development and implementation of data-driven and evidence-based approaches.

The projects are due to commence in the coming weeks. The projects offered by the hosts include a wide range of topics – including the economic, social and ethical implications of technological innovation; data analytics for signals of emerging food safety risks; the economic cost of discrimination and the benefits of diversity in the workplace, to name a few.

During the COVID-19 pandemic it became very clear to me the essential input, expertise and service that the academic research community can provide to bolster colleagues in Government Departments and agencies.

Equally, placements within Government Departments and Agencies will expose academic researchers to the mechanics of public service and policy making which will contribute greatly to their career development. The secondment model will also provide an opportunity for further dissemination of knowledge and learnings to a broader academic cohort on return of the Fellow to their academic institution. Thus, the Public Service Fellowship pilot programme will help in increasing the linkages between the research and civil service systems.

Student Support Schemes

Questions (57)

Pádraig O'Sullivan

Question:

57. Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science when laptops ordered to assist students with online and blended learning will be available to UCC students; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22627/20]

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Written answers (Question to Further and Higher Education)

UCC have received their allocation under the recently announced Once-Off COVID-19 Grant to support disadvantaged students in accessing ICT devices. UCC have opted to procure devices directly and it is anticipated that the procurement process will be completed in the coming weeks. Students should contact UCC directly for further information.

Technological Universities

Questions (58)

Verona Murphy

Question:

58. Deputy Verona Murphy asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the status of a new Wexford campus as part of the Technological University for the South-East Ireland; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22601/20]

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Written answers (Question to Further and Higher Education)

The process to secure a location for a higher education campus in Wexford, which is being led by IT Carlow, is ongoing. IT Carlow is, along with Waterford IT, a member of the Technological University of South East Ireland (TUSEI) TU development consortium, and it is envisaged that the Wexford campus would form part of a multi-campus TU in the event of its establishment.

My Department has agreed in principle to provide funding for acquisition of a site for the new campus. I can confirm to the Deputy in this context that both IT Carlow and my Department remain fully committed to the development of higher education facilities in Wexford.

Student Universal Support Ireland

Questions (59)

Martin Browne

Question:

59. Deputy Martin Browne asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science if his attention has been drawn to the anxiety the delay in the issuing of SUSI is causing to students approved for the 2020/2021 academic year; if his attention has been drawn to the fact that some students starting college on 14 September 2020 must wait until 9 October 2020 for their first payment and until the end of October 2020 for their second payment; if his attention has been further drawn to the need for students some of whom are lone parents to secure the grant as quickly as possible due to the outlay they are subject to at the beginning of each academic year; if he will request the prompt payment of the grant to these students ahead of the dates as mentioned; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22658/20]

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Written answers (Question to Further and Higher Education)

At the end of August, SUSI had received over 91,000 applications from students with over 67,500 students assessed as eligible for support for academic year 2020-21.

In line with previous years, SUSI’s payment schedule is updated to coincide with college start dates. In accordance with legislation, to receive payment, students must be registered with their college and the college must confirm their registration with SUSI.

SUSI consulted with colleges and found that for academic year 2020-21, the majority will open towards the end of September or the beginning of October. While SUSI is ready to pay maintenance grants to awarded students as soon as it is practical to do so, the first scheduled payment date for maintenance grants is October 9; this affords students the necessary time to register with their college and for colleges to then confirm their registration with SUSI.

To ensure students receive their first payment as soon as possible, SUSI will be making weekly payments from October 9. For the academic year 2020-21, the first payment will be made sooner after colleges commence than in previous years.

In order for students to receive the necessary supports when they return to education this autumn, four scheduled maintenance payments will be made before the end of December, with two payments scheduled to be made in October.

The Deputy will be aware of the recently announced €168m funding package for the return to education. This package includes a €10m access support package for higher education students. I have approved the allocation of €8.1m of this funding to top up the Student Assistance Fund.

Students in third-level institutions experiencing exceptional financial need can apply for support under the Student Assistance Fund. This Fund assists students, in a sensitive and compassionate manner, who might otherwise be unable to continue their third level studies due to their financial circumstances. Information on the fund is available through the Access Officer in the third level institution attended. This fund is administered on a confidential, discretionary basis.

Mental Health Policy

Questions (60)

Mark Ward

Question:

60. Deputy Mark Ward asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the contingency plan in place to respond to the expected rise in students presenting with mental health issues on their return to the classroom; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22614/20]

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Written answers (Question to Further and Higher Education)

The mental health of our students is a priority for my Department, particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the increased mental stress and pressure resulting from it. In this regard I recently secured a comprehensive package of financial support in the amount of €168m for the Higher Education and Further Education and Training sector to mitigate against the direct financial impact of COVID-19 on our Universities, institutions, colleges and students in 2020. This package includes additional funding of €3m to underpin well-being and mental health and student services in our higher education institutions, and is in addition to the €2m that was allocated in Budget 2020. This overall funding of €5m comes at a time of great urgency in relation to student support and re-opening of our higher education institutions.

In addition, the Higher Education Authority, assisted by a broad range of stakeholders, including the Health Service Executive, the National Office for Suicide Prevention, the Health Service Executive, the USI, Psychological Counsellors in Higher Education Ireland, institutional representatives, and my Department has been preparing a National Student Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Framework. I expect that this Framework will be published in coming weeks.

Mental Health Policy

Questions (61)

Mark Ward

Question:

61. Deputy Mark Ward asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the practices and policies in place in universities if an athlete, student or extended staff presents themselves with mental health issues; the number of teachers trained in suicide awareness; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22613/20]

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Written answers (Question to Further and Higher Education)

Student counselling services are dedicated mental health support services available in all higher education institutions. They provide psychological counselling to students experiencing personal adjustment, developmental and/or psychological problems that require professional attention. They assist students in identifying and learning skills that will assist them to effectively meet their educational and life goals. They support and enhance the healthy growth and development of students through consultation and outreach to the campus community. I do not have information in the numbers of academic staff trained in suicide awareness, but the Counsellors provide psychological expertise and advice to HEI front-line staff in managing critical incidents and complex cross service student mental health presentations.

The vision of Connecting for Life: Ireland’s National Strategy to Reduce Suicide 2015–2020 is to reduce lives lost by suicide and to empower communities and individuals to improve their mental health and well-being. Young adults are identified as a group who are at increased risk of mental health issues and suicide and the majority of third-level students fall within this group. While individual HEIs provide guidance, policies and procedures to support student success, not all HEIs have fully documented guidance on areas such as mental health policy. Therefore the Higher Education Authority together with representatives from my Department, the Health Service Executive, the National Office for Suicide Prevention, the Health Service Executive, the Union of Students in Ireland, Psychological Counsellors in Higher Education Ireland and institutional representatives, has been preparing a National Student Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Framework. This will be published in coming weeks.

Third Level Institutions

Questions (62)

Marian Harkin

Question:

62. Deputy Marian Harkin asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the plans in place to progress a university of the north-west involving Letterkenny IT and Magee College, Derry; and the way in which such plans may impact on the Connacht, Ulster Alliance for a technological university application. [22646/20]

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Written answers (Question to Further and Higher Education)

The development and progression of technological universities (TUs), including a TU in the Connacht Ulster region, is an important part of the Government’s higher education policy as underscored in the Programme for Government 2020.

In this context the Government’s objective for the establishment of a university serving the north-west is being advanced through the Connacht Ulster Alliance (CUA) TU development consortium composed of Letterkenny Institute of Technology, Galway Mayo IT and IT Sligo. CUA is working on plans to submit an application seeking an order for establishment as a technological university under the Technological Universities Act 2018. My Department understands that an application is to be submitted by CUA by the end of the year.

In the broader context I am focused on examining opportunities for closer North-South collaboration in the Further Education and Higher Education areas including in the north-west where such arise opportunities particularly post-Brexit and as we seek deal with and emerge from the Covid 19 pandemic. In this context I am determined that, notwithstanding Brexit, cross-border collaboration should not only be maintained but enhanced.

As such, I have, noted with interest recent calls for the development of a cross-border university, potentially involving Magee College in Derry which is part of Ulster University. While I understand the challenges involved in establishing such an institution including under the current legal framework for universities in this State I have asked my officials to consider this matter further and will keep the Deputy updated on developments.

Third Level Admissions

Questions (63)

Bernard Durkan

Question:

63. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the extent to which he remains satisfied that adequate third-level places remain available for students seeking such places in 2020; if he foresees difficulties arising from the impact of Covid-19; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22625/20]

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Written answers (Question to Further and Higher Education)

I appreciate that entry to higher education is a source of anxiety to many students this year, and I have taken steps to increase the number of places available in higher education.

1,250 additional places are being offered on certain high-demand undergraduate programmes. These extra places are focused on programmes that attract students across a range of CAO points levels, and this will have a cascade effect, creating greater capacity in lower demand courses.

These places are in addition to the 1,415 places in key skills areas created under Pillar 2 of the Human Capital Initiative. Those places will be in areas such as ICT, Science, Engineering and Professional Construction.

The provision of these places gives us scope to ease anxiety, reduce uncertainty and demonstrate the ability of the education system to respond to student concerns. While some options usually open to school leavers, such as travel and alternative experiences, will be more restricted than in the past there are more choices and options across the higher and further education system than ever before.

Student Grant Scheme

Questions (64)

Martin Browne

Question:

64. Deputy Martin Browne asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science if his attention has been drawn to instances in which mature and postgraduate students are being denied grants due to the fact they are being assessed based upon their parents’ income even though it does not apply to them; if his attention has been further drawn to students in such a situation being described as mature dependents, even though they are independent of their parents; his plans to address the anomaly; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22659/20]

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Written answers (Question to Further and Higher Education)

The decision on eligibility for student grant applications is a matter for the centralised grant awarding authority SUSI (Student Universal Support Ireland).

For student grant purposes, students are categorised according to their circumstances either as students dependent on parents or a legal guardian, or as independent mature students.

A student may be assessed as an independent student (i.e. assessed without reference to parental income and address) if he/she has attained the age of 23 on the 1st of January of the year of first entry to an approved course and is not ordinarily resident with his/her parents from the previous 1st of October. Otherwise, he/she would be assessed as a dependent student i.e. assessed with reference to parental income and address.

A student’s status for grant purposes is defined at their first point of entry to an approved further or higher education course or at their point of re-entry to an approved course following a break in studies of at least three years, and continues to apply for the duration of their studies.

Applicants who do not meet the criteria to be assessed as an independent student for grant purposes, or who cannot supply the necessary documentation to establish independent living for the required period, may still apply to SUSI to have their grant eligibility assessed as a dependent student. The relevant information, including details of parental income, would be required by SUSI to determine grant eligibility as a dependent student.

Students in third-level institutions experiencing exceptional financial need can apply for support under the Student Assistance Fund. This Fund assists students, in a sensitive and compassionate manner, who might otherwise be unable to continue their third level studies due to their financial circumstances. Information on the fund is available through the Access Officer in the third level institution attended. This fund is administered on a confidential, discretionary basis.

Covid-19 Pandemic

Questions (65)

Pádraig O'Sullivan

Question:

65. Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science if he will engage with educational institutions, representatives of students and student accommodation providers as colleges and universities return in view of the unique challenges which students and providers face due to Covid-19. [22628/20]

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Written answers (Question to Further and Higher Education)

I am conscious of the pressures challenges faced by students regarding student accommodation this year due to financial pressures and the blended learning format of the 2020/21 academic year. Throughout the last number of months my Department has been engaging with representatives from the higher education sector to address the challenges faced by students in this difficult time. My Department, in consultation with these key stakeholders will continue to monitor the situation relating to student accommodation closely.

My Department chairs an Interdepartmental Working Group on Student Accommodation. This group contains representatives from Higher Education Institutions, the Union of Students in Ireland and a number of government departments. It is intended to convene a meeting of this group shortly to discuss the accommodation issues faced by students due to COVID-19.