Childcare Services

Questions (209)

Neale Richmond

Question:

209. Deputy Neale Richmond asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth his views on whether there will be a staffing crisis in the childcare sector; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7631/21]

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Written answers (Question to Children)

I am very aware that many early learning and care (ELC) and school-age childcare (SAC) services continue to report difficulties in recruiting and retaining qualified staff. The most recent published data indicates that the staff turnover rate in the sector stood at 23% in 2019. This, though it was an improvement on the previous year, is too high, especially given the importance of consistency of care for young children. The Pobal Sector Profile for 2020 will be published in the coming weeks and will contain more up-to-date data on staffing issues. In addition, I have met with employee and employer representatives on a number of occasions and have listened to their concerns, including on staffing issues. Having examined the available data and reports from sector representatives, though I acknowledge the challenges in recruitment and retention I do not believe there is an imminent staffing crisis in the sector.

The key challenge to recruiting and retaining staff is the need for improvement in pay and working conditions for practitioners in ELC and SAC services. The level of pay they receive does not reflect the value of the work they do for children, for families and for the wider society and economy. The most recent published data indicates that the average hourly wage in the sector was €12.55 in mid-2019.

As the State is not the employer, my Department does not set wage levels nor determine working conditions for staff working in the sector. My Department has, however, over a number of years provided a range of supports to service providers to enable them to improve wages and working conditions. However, wages in the sector remain too low. Given the importance of the issue, it is imperative that my Department continues to engage with provider and staff representatives.

In December 2020, working in partnership with SIPTU and CSI/IBEC, I began a short process in which interested parties were invited to discuss how best to address issues of pay and conditions in the sector and how a Joint Labour Committee might support this. Dr Kevin Duffy, former Chair of the Labour Court, chaired the meetings, which concluded in the last few days. Dr Duffy will shortly submit to me a report outlining the issues and possible solutions raised in the process, and making a recommendation on next steps. I am hopeful that implementation of his recommendations will support progress in addressing pay and conditions in the sector.

Childcare Services

Questions (210)

Neale Richmond

Question:

210. Deputy Neale Richmond asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth his views on whether there are sufficient childcare places throughout Dublin 6, 14, 16 and 18 to cater for demand; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7632/21]

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Written answers (Question to Children)

Supply of, and demand for, early learning and care and school-age childcare places is currently monitored annually through the Early Years Sector Profile report. This survey is conducted by Pobal on behalf of the Department.

Data from the 2018/2019 programme year, indicates that existing childcare provision, in general, meets current needs nationwide in terms of capacity whilst recognising that small pockets of under supply may exist within this.

Nationally, capacity and vacant places increased year on year from 2017/2018 to 2018/2019. A breakdown of data is available at a local authority level in Dublin, including South Dublin and Dun Laoghaire Rathdown. South Dublin had a vacancy rate of 5% in 2018/2019, up from 4% in 2017/2018. Dun Laoghaire Rathdown had a vacancy rate of 2% in 2018/2019, down from 4% in 2017/2018. My Department continues to monitor this data closely.

A key policy objective of my Department is to improve affordability, accessibility and quality of Early Learning and Care (ELC) and School-Age Childcare (SAC). A significant increase in investment over the last number of years has led to a doubling in the number of children receiving free or subsidised early learning and care and school-age childcare. It has also supported the sector to increase the number of places available.

First 5, the ten-year whole-of-Government strategy for babies, young children and their families pledges to build on this progress. Among key strategic actions in First 5 is a commitment to 'maintain and extend the supply of high-quality publicly subsidised ELC and SAC to best serve the developmental needs of babies and young children, ensuring that it also reflects the needs and preferences of parents and families'.

To deliver on this strategic action, a range of actions are under way, including an update of the National Planning Guidelines for the development of early learning and care and school-age childcare settings, the extension of regulation to all paid, non-relative childminders on a phased basis and the development of a strategic capital investment plan to deliver large-scale capital investment under Project 2040. The development of a new funding model for ELC and SAC also seeks to address issues of accessibility.

There is also a commitment to strengthen capacity to accurately forecast supply and demand for early learning and care and school-age childcare.

Any parent experiencing difficulty in accessing a place is advised to contact their local CCC. Information is available at myccc.ie.

Children First Guidelines

Questions (211)

Paul Murphy

Question:

211. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth if he will urgently review and amend the Children First national guidelines for the protection and welfare of children in Ireland to be inclusive of all children who are at risk, including children deemed to be a risk to themselves regarding acknowledged behavioural conditions; if he will add to the child protection register a fifth such category of risk to the four categories already specified in the guidelines and thereby guide all the relevant bodies in their provision of appropriate protective and support measures to children who are deemed to be a risk to themselves; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7651/21]

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Written answers (Question to Children)

The Children First Act 2015, which was fully commenced in December 2017, provides for a number of key child protection measures, including raising awareness of child abuse and neglect, providing for reporting and management of child protection concerns and improving child protection arrangements in organisations providing services to children.

The Act operates side-by-side with the non-statutory obligations provided for in Children First: National Guidance for the Protection and Welfare of Children. The guidance, which was fully revised in October 2017 to include reference to the provisions of the Act, is intended to assist members of the public, professionals, employees or volunteers in identifying and reporting concerns about child abuse and neglect to Tusla, the Child and Family Agency. It sets out definitions of abuse, and signs for its recognition. It explains how reports about reasonable concerns of child abuse or neglect should be made by the general public and professionals to Tusla. It sets out what organisations need to do to keep children safe. It also describes the obligations under the Children First Act 2015 and who they attach to. The definitions of abuse set out in the guidance refer to internationally recognised and agreed categories of abuse.

Tusla has a statutory duty under the Child Care Act 1991 to promote the welfare of children who are not receiving adequate care and protection. Tusla assesses all child welfare and protection concerns that are reported to it and takes appropriate actions, including referrals to appropriate services and agencies, dependant on assessment outcomes. If Tusla suspects that a crime has been committed and a child has been wilfully neglected or physically or sexually abused, it will formally notify AGS without delay.

As the Deputy is aware unfortunately there are a wide range of difficulties which children and young people may experience and which may result in behavioural issues. Mental health services for children and young people are provided by the Health Service Executive through Primary Care and Mental Health Services which identify and diagnose behavioural conditions and determine appropriate treatment. It is not within this Minister’s remit to issue guidance to a general audience on these specialist medical issues or to guide relevant bodies in identification of appropriate treatments and support measures. Accordingly it is not currently intended to expand the definitions of abuse set out in the guidelines to include children who are a risk themselves from behavioural or other issues. Regarding access to support services for children with behavioural issues, it is important to note that neither the Act nor guidelines prescribe or limit the interventions or support measures that are available to children from Tusla or other providers of support services, such as the Health Service Executive.

Early Childhood Care and Education

Questions (212)

Joe Flaherty

Question:

212. Deputy Joe Flaherty asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth his plans to invite service providers to provide their feedback and observations as part of the current review and evaluation of the AIM. [7685/21]

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Written answers (Question to Children)

An independent evaluation of the Access and Inclusion Model (AIM) commenced in December 2020 and will be undertaken during 2021. The evaluation is being carried out by a consortium led by the University of Derby.

The Evaluation will involve a range of methods to gather data. As part of the Evaluation, surveys of both parents and service providers will be undertaken. In addition, both qualitative and quantitative research will be undertaken to consider the perspectives and experiences of children, parents, providers, and a range of key stakeholders involved in designing and delivering AIM supports and other relevant State-funded supports for early learning and care settings.

Early Childhood Care and Education

Questions (213)

Joe Flaherty

Question:

213. Deputy Joe Flaherty asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth if the review and evaluation of the AIM will reconsider the qualification levels of AIM workers and SNAs for early years education (details supplied); and if the SNA course will qualify them for these positions, making it easier for early years providers to recruit and retain staff. [7686/21]

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Written answers (Question to Children)

In line with emerging best practice to support the integration and independence of children with a disability, the Access and Inclusion Model (AIM) does not fund Special Needs Assistants (SNAs). Rather, Level 7 of AIM provides financial support to the pre-school provider, which is used either to reduce the adult-to-child ratio in the pre-school room or to buy in additional assistance to the pre-school room. Accordingly, AIM Level 7 assistance is a shared resource for the pre-school setting.

For this reason, staff who are supported with AIM Level 7 funding must adhere to the same qualification criteria as their colleagues in the early learning and care setting, as prescribed in Regulation 9 of the Early Years Services Regulations 2016.

I am committed to supporting providers to respond to current challenges. In designing responses, however, it is important that any measures considered are proportionate to the problem they seek to address and that wider impacts are carefully considered. In that regard, it is important to stress that the minimum qualification requirement to work directly with children in an early learning care service was introduced in 2016 in order to improve the quality of provision and to achieve better outcomes for children.

To remove this minimum qualification requirement could be contrary to the best interests of children and the vision for the sector that is outlined in First 5, the whole-of-Government strategy to improve the lives of babies, young children and their families. Such a move could be a significant backwards step in efforts to improve quality outcomes for children and could only be considered if there were a very strong evidence base requiring a change.

Individuals who wish to work directly with children in a pre-school service must hold at least a major award in Early Childhood Care and Education at Level 5 on the National Framework of Qualifications (NFQ), or a qualification deemed equivalent. My Department has published a list of qualifications that meet this regulatory requirement. If an individual's qualification does not appear on the list they may apply to my Department for assessment of equivalence of their qualification.

Early Childhood Care and Education

Questions (214)

Joe Flaherty

Question:

214. Deputy Joe Flaherty asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth if the review and evaluation of the AIM will explore an apprenticeship-style model of recruitment in the early years sector (details supplied). [7687/21]

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Written answers (Question to Children)

The Access and Inclusion Model (AIM) was launched in 2016 to enable the inclusion and meaningful participation of children with disabilities in the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) programme. An evaluation of AIM began in December 2020. The evaluation is expected to:

- Provide a detailed understanding of AIM, having regard to the vision, current approach, governance, coverage and external context.

- Ascertain the impact and effectiveness of AIM from the perspective of all stakeholders – investigating insofar as possible outcomes, efficacy, efficiency, adaptability and sustainability.

- Provide an overall assessment of AIM, considering strengths, challenges and opportunities for learning.

The focus of the evaluation is the AIM programme itself. Exploration of recruitment methods in the sector fall outside the scope of the evaluation.

It should be noted that new criteria and guidelines for professional awards in early learning and care at levels 5 through to 8 on the National Framework of Qualifications have recently been published, and new education programmes are currently being introduced on foot of the criteria and guidelines. Guidance has been given on the duration and content of programmes, including requirements for practice placements.

In addition, officials in my Department are currently in the process of developing a new Workforce Development Plan, in collaboration with the Department of Education. The Workforce Development Plan, which will be completed in 2021, will set out plans to raise the profile of careers in the sector and establish role profiles, career pathways, qualification requirements, and associated policy mechanisms, along with leadership development opportunities, and will work towards a more gender-balanced and diverse workforce.

While the Workforce Development Plan may consider the broad relevance of an apprenticeship model to the sector, the development of an apprenticeship relies on the formulation of proposals by employers and education institutions, and approval by the Apprenticeship Council. The consideration and potential introduction of a new apprenticeship model for early learning and care practitioners is therefore not solely a policy matter for my Department.

Childcare Services

Questions (215)

Éamon Ó Cuív

Question:

215. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth if he plans to make terms of pay and conditions a condition of receipt of funding in the preschool crèche and early years services in view of the significant investment being made by his Department in the sector; his plans to ensure that increased funding will be available to the sector to make childcare affordable while ensuring workers have good working conditions; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7702/21]

View answer

Written answers (Question to Children)

A number of significant projects are currently being undertaken in my Department with the aim of improving pay and conditions for staff in the early learning and care sector and to improve affordability of childcare for parents.

With regard to the issue of pay and conditions for the workforce, my Department is currently working with SIPTU and IBEC to consider proposals for the establishment of a Joint Labour Committee in the sector and the drawing up of an Employment Regulation Order. Dr Kevin Duffy, former Chair of the Labour Court, is the independent chair of the process and he will shortly submit a report to me on its outcome.

I recognise that there are many further steps to be taken, but I understand that there is broad agreement on the potential benefits of regulating wages in the sector and on the possible benefits of establishing a Joint Labour Committee as a way forward.

In addition to consideration of a Joint Labour Committee, an Expert Group is currently advising my Department on a Workforce Development Plan for the early learning and care sector which is intended to:

- raise the profile of careers in early learning and care and school-age childcare,

- establish a career framework and leadership development opportunities

- set out mechanisms by which representatives of employers and staff can work together to agree salary scales and employment conditions, with the backing of the Labour Court and

- work towards building a more gender-balanced and diverse workforce.

The initial report of the Expert Group will be submitted to me in the coming months.

With regard to the cost of childcare, a review of the funding model for the early learning and care sector is underway with the aim of

- continue to reduce the out of pocket costs to parents.

- ensure a range of additional supports can be provided to children from disadvantaged group.

- compensate providers so that they can deliver early learning and childcare on a sustainable and high-quality basis.

- attract and retain a well-qualified workforce.

- create more supportive working conditions, where the workforce feel valued, where there is time for preparation, for reflection, for teamwork, for parental engagement.

The initial report of the funding model review will be completed in the coming months.

Childcare Services

Questions (216)

Denis Naughten

Question:

216. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth if he will review the conditions of the COSP which must show an income drop in excess of 55% in order for a provider to be eligible for support; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7725/21]

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Written answers (Question to Children)

A range of State supports are available to early learning and care (ELC) and school-age childcare (SAC) services during the period 1 February to 5 March, including the Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme (EWSS), continuation of DCEDIY funding schemes (ECCE, AIM, NCS, and legacy schemes), and a Sustainability Fund. Services may also charge fees to parents whose children are attending, which at this time includes children of essential workers.

In addition to the other supports available, the Covid-19 Operating Support Payment (COSP) is intended to support services that are very reliant on parental fees to remain sustainable during the period of high level restrictions, while meeting the condition of not charging fees for families whose children are not attending the service. The payment seeks to enable services to support parents by not charging fees for children who are not attending, regardless of whether non-attendance is because their parents are not essential workers or because their parents have chosen not to use ELC and SAC services at this time.

Eligibility for the COSP is determined on the basis of transparent, objective criteria, to support ease of administration for a scheme that is expected to operate for a short period of time. The criteria have been selected on the basis that they are likely to identify the services most reliant on parental fees.

The criteria reflect the continued availability of the enhanced EWSS rates (which are estimated to meet 80% of payroll costs or 50% of operating costs of ELC/SAC services), 100% continued funding of DCEDIY schemes for services that receive the COSP and avail of enhanced ECCE funding, and receipt of parental fees for children attending services that are open – the average occupancy level among open services is currently 25%. Closed services have reduced operating costs.

The eligibility criteria for the COSP include that the total value of DCEDIY funding schemes (ECCE, AIM, NCS, legacy schemes) allocated to the service in the week ending 13 December 2020 must be less than 45% of the ‘calculated-income-capacity’ of the service, which is an estimate of the maximum expected total income for the service in the absence of the EWSS. As registered ELC and SAC services are exempt from the income-loss threshold for the EWSS, services that are ineligible for the COSP are expected to have on average 50% of their operating costs met by the EWSS and more than 45% of their costs met by other DCEDIY funding schemes. For services ineligible for COSP, even a very low level of occupancy or zero occupancy would be sufficient for a service to meet its operating costs.

It is acknowledged that some services that are reliant on parental fees may not meet the criteria – it is open to such services to apply for the Sustainability Fund if the service has sustainability concerns as a result of the current restrictions.

Child and Family Agency

Questions (217)

Brendan Smith

Question:

217. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the proposals to extend a programme (details supplied) to other areas; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7805/21]

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Written answers (Question to Children)

The Tusla ABC Programme within Prevention Partnership and Family Support, is an area based Prevention and Early Intervention initiative which is delivered in 12 areas of significant socio-economic disadvantage across the country.

Strategic discussions continue to take place across the Tusla ABC programme with key stakeholders to explore what potential aspects of the ABC model could be scaled or replicated to broaden the reach and share the learning of the programme. These discussions are taking into consideration identified need, resources available and the scope of the programme. Any decision in respect of the further transfer of learning from the ABC Programme to the Cavan area will be based on these factors.

The Tusla Prevention, Partnership and Family Support Programme has ongoing engagement with partners to ensure services are easily accessible and integrated at the front line in the community for children, young people and families. In particular, the Child and Family Support Networks, which consist of local services that play a role in the lives of children and families in a given area, work to ensure that there is no wrong door for families seeking help, by directing them to appropriate support in their community. There are eight CFSNs in the Cavan/Monaghan Area, involving 63 agencies.

Direct Provision System

Questions (218)

Brendan Smith

Question:

218. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth if detailed consideration will be given to a report (details supplied) on direct provision; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7817/21]

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Written answers (Question to Children)

The Programme for Government contains a commitment to ending the Direct Provision system and replacing it with a new International Protection accommodation policy, centred on a not-for-profit approach. The Government has also committed to the development of a White Paper which will set out how this new system will be structured and the steps to achieving it.

As part of the consultation process for the White Paper, I met with the Irish Refugee Council and I also received a copy of the report referred to by the Deputy. It has provided useful research feeding into the policy development process in the White Paper.

My Department is in the final stages of drafting the White Paper, which will set out options, together with the recommended direction, for the new model of accommodation and services for International Protection applicants and the transitional processes needed to implement the model. I expect it to be submitted to Government shortly.

All matters in relation to the new International Protection system that will replace the current system await the Government’s decision on the White Paper.

Mother and Baby Homes Inquiries

Questions (219)

Brendan Smith

Question:

219. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth if issues raised in correspondence (details supplied) will be given further consideration; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7826/21]

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Written answers (Question to Children)

The issues raised in the attached correspondence are being given consideration by my Department. I am already on the record of this House in responding to many of the matters raised in the context of the Government response to the Final Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes.

With regard to the specific concerns relating to the records of the independent Commission of Investigation, the Commission is due to deposit its full archive with my Department prior to its dissolution at the end of the month. In the interim, the independent Commission continues to be the data controller for the records in its possession.

Intensive preparations are ongoing to ensure subject access requests can be processed in my Department in full compliance with the Data Protection Regulatory Framework. In the context of these preparations, I have sought further information from the Chair of the Commission to clarify whether, with the assistance of specialist technical expertise, it may be possible to retrieve personal data from any Confidential Committee records that were not retained. I have also sought to clarify when related audio recordings and notes were deleted. Both clarifications would be hugely helpful in informing how I intend to proceed to give effect to Article 16 of the GDPR when the records transfer to me.

In addition, I have met with the Data Protection Commissioner with a view to supporting clarity on these matters prior to the dissolution of the Commission.

A decision on any further action will be informed by this information gathering exercise and the legal advices of the Attorney General. Any call to extend the timeframe of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes must have regard to the fact that the Commission completed the inquiries it was established to conduct when submitting its Final Report last year. It is not clear at this point that an extension is in fact necessary to clarify these matters, or that extending the timeframe of the Commission would assist in this regard.

In addition, I have communicated with the Data Protection Commissioner with a view to supporting additional clarity on these matters.

Technological Universities

Questions (220, 221, 222)

Matt Shanahan

Question:

220. Deputy Matt Shanahan asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the workstreams activity agreed regarding the new technological university for the south east development (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7533/21]

View answer

Matt Shanahan

Question:

221. Deputy Matt Shanahan asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the proposed new name for technological university for the south east (details supplied); the location of the administration of same; the location of the new registration of the temporary entity for public service access and for the postal address of same; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7534/21]

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Matt Shanahan

Question:

222. Deputy Matt Shanahan asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the proposed structure of a new governing board of the technological university for the south east; the proposed number of members; the process for member selection; his plans to have representatives from counties Kildare, Laois and Wicklow on the board; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7535/21]

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Written answers (Question to Further and Higher Education)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 220 to 222, inclusive, together.

To date, I have not received an application under the Technological Universities Act 2018 from the TUSEI development consortium. However, I am informed the consortium intends to submit an application by 28 April 2021 and that the application will seek designation for a new TU to serve the entirety of the South East region and those hinterland areas where students are, and may in the future be, drawn from.

The structure of the first governing body of any new TU upon its establishment is prescribed by Section 55 of the 2018 Act. This would follow a Ministerial decision under the Act to designate applicant institutes unified TU status.

The plans and work stream activities undertaken by applicant institutes in their preparations for making an application for TU designation under the 2018 Act are matters for those institutes.

Neither I nor my Department has any role in the naming of a TU, or in relation to the other administrative issues referenced by the Deputy. These are matters for the TU development consortium and the TU upon establishment, as appropriate.

I would, however, underscore that TUs are multi-campus by their very nature and each campus should be considered equal in stature. A TU is a merging of partner applicant institutes into a unified Higher Education Institution of greater critical mass and reach with a commonly held strategic vision and mission. TUs, including a TU in the South East, can only come into being in the first place and truly function and progress thereafter, if they are a committed coming together of parties complementing and supplementing each other rather than seeking to operate on some form of satellite arrangement.

As the Deputy is aware, a TU for the South East is a significant priority for the Government because of the considerable opportunities it will bring to Waterford and the entire South East, such as the ability to increase FDI, capital investment, research funding and international recognition, and to be a catalyst for innovation and regional development. Students, staff, enterprise and the wider community will for the first time be able to avail of the opportunity provided by a university within their own region and it will also provide an attractive additional option for students from surrounding counties which can only be good for balanced regional development and the vibrancy of the region.

Student Support Schemes

Questions (223)

Brendan Griffin

Question:

223. Deputy Brendan Griffin asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science if his Department can assist a student (details supplied) who is having difficulties in securing student finance in the UK due to confusion about their time in college in Ireland; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7669/21]

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Written answers (Question to Further and Higher Education)

Clarity concerning time spent in a college in Ireland by the student referred to by the Deputy is a matter for the Higher Education Institution which are autonomous bodies .

However, I have been advised that the student referred to by the Deputy submitted an application for student support for the 2020/21 academic year to the Student Universal Support Ireland (SUSI). The application was subsequently refused in early December 2020 on the basis that the applicant did not submit the requested information in the timeframe provided by SUSI. I have been further advised that the applicant has not made any further contact with SUSI and no documents have been received in support of the application.

The decision on eligibility for student grant assistance is a matter, in the first instance, for the centralised student grant awarding authority SUSI (Student Universal Support Ireland) to determine.

If an individual applicant considers that she/he has been unjustly refused a student grant, or that the rate of grant awarded is not the correct one, she/he may appeal, in the first instance, to SUSI. Where an individual applicant has had an appeal turned down in writing by SUSI and remains of the view that the scheme has not been interpreted correctly in his/her case, an appeal may be submitted to the independent Student Grants Appeals Board within the required timeframe. Such appeals can be made by the appellant on line via www.studentgrantappeals.ie.

Third Level Fees

Questions (224)

Denis Naughten

Question:

224. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science if pro rata refunds of registration fees for student services will be issued by third level institutions to students who have not been on campus to avail of such services; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7723/21]

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Written answers (Question to Further and Higher Education)

Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) are governed by the Universities Act 1997, the Institutes of Technologies Acts 1992 to 2006 and the Technological Universities Act 2018. Within the meaning of these Acts, HEIs are autonomous bodies and are responsible for their own day-to-day management and operational affairs including dealing with policy and procedure in relation to fees or any student levy payable by students for services or campus facilitates.

In considering fees, it is important to note that the State currently provides very substantial financial support to undergraduate students in higher education towards the cost of their studies. This support has played a very significant role in facilitating access to and growth in higher education. What was previously the preserve of a relatively small proportion of the school leaving population is now much more widely available, as reflected in the current transfer rate from second to third level.

This commitment is demonstrated through the Free Fees Schemes under which the Exchequer currently contributes €340m to meeting the tuition fee costs of eligible undergraduate students in higher education. All students eligible for the scheme receive state support whereby the Exchequer pays the cost of tuition fees exclusive of the student contribution. In addition, the Exchequer pays the student contribution of €3,000 per annum in full or part, through SUSI, for approximately 44% of students eligible for free fees students at a cost of over €180m.

Under Level 5 of the Plan for Living with COVID all further and higher education institutions will deliver the majority of their classes online with only essential activities held on site. While I appreciate that this is disappointing for students who had hoped to have as much time on campus as possible, these measures were necessary to support halting the spread of the Coronavirus.

I am of course very conscious of the immediate impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on our students. In recognition of the challenges facing full time third level students, financial assistance will be provided in academic year 2020/21 to all students who avail of SUSI grants and to all EU full-time undergraduate and postgraduate students attending publicly funded Higher Education Institutions in the state.

Under this initiative students who avail of the SUSI grant will receive a €250 top-up in their grant and students who do not avail of the grant but attend publicly funded Higher Education Institutions in the state can reduce by €250 any outstanding student contribution fee payments or receive a €250 credit note for their institution.

Additionally Budget 2021 provides further funding to enhance SUSI grant supports for post-grads and increase support for the PATH access initiative. In July I announced a range of additional student supports including a doubling of the Student Assistance Fund, and a €15 million technology fund for devices for students.

The combined impact of these supports and initiatives highlight the strength of the Government's commitment to supporting students in meeting the costs of third level education.

Student Accommodation

Questions (225)

Éamon Ó Cuív

Question:

225. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science if he or his Department has had discussions with University of Limerick on its policy of not offering refunds to students who cannot use their on-campus accommodation due to Covid-19; if his attention has been drawn to the hardship this is causing students, many of whom have also lost the part-time work they engaged in, and many of whose parents have also seen a decrease in income due to Covid 19; if he or his Department has had these discussions, the result of same; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7732/21]

View answer

Written answers (Question to Further and Higher Education)

I am conscious of the challenges faced by students regarding student accommodation this year due to both financial pressures, and the blended learning format of the 2020/21 academic year.

The Deputy will be aware that the university sector has been actively engaging with these issues. As a result of the decision to minimise on-site teaching, all universities have confirmed that students who opted to leave their university-owned student accommodation as a result reduced on-campus activity will be offered refunds or rental credits. The processing of these refunds is a matter for the universities themselves, and any student who wishes to receive a refund for their on-campus accommodation should engage directly with their university’s accommodation office.

In relation the University of Limerick specifically I have been informed that students were given until 31st October to cancel their accommodation and receive a full refund. Students who chose to leave their accommodation after 31st October due to the remote format of the academic year have been offered a rental fee credit. I will continue to liaise with the sector through the Irish Universities Association to encourage the availability of fair solutions to students in university-owned student accommodation.

However this applies only to accommodation owned by the universities themselves. In the case of privately owned student accommodation, I am urging providers to be flexible in finding solutions given the circumstances that students find themselves. There are, however, no powers available to me under the current legal framework to direct any particular course of action. Refund or cancellation policies in student accommodation should be set out in the license agreement signed at the beginning of the academic year. In the first instance students should engage with their accommodation provider to see if an arrangement can be reached. If this is not possible, students have access to the Dispute Resolution Services of the Residential Tenancies Board.

I have asked my officials to continue to engage with the sector and to keep me updated on relevant developments in this important area.

Apprenticeship Programmes

Questions (226, 227, 228, 229, 230, 231)

Aodhán Ó Ríordáin

Question:

226. Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science when the action plan for apprenticeships will be published. [7811/21]

View answer

Aodhán Ó Ríordáin

Question:

227. Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the specific measures proposed within the action plan for apprenticeships to promote apprenticeships as a viable option for school leavers. [7812/21]

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Aodhán Ó Ríordáin

Question:

228. Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science if the action plan for apprenticeships requires public sector employers to employ apprentices; and if the action plan will set targets for public sector employers, including semi-State companies, agencies and local authorities. [7813/21]

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Aodhán Ó Ríordáin

Question:

229. Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science if the action plan on apprenticeships has specific measurable targets and actions to encourage women to become apprentices. [7814/21]

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Aodhán Ó Ríordáin

Question:

230. Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science if the action plan on apprenticeships has specific measurable targets and actions to encourage persons with disabilities to become apprentices. [7815/21]

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Aodhán Ó Ríordáin

Question:

231. Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science if the action plan on apprenticeships has specific measurable targets and actions to encourage minority and disadvantaged groups to become apprentices. [7816/21]

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Written answers (Question to Further and Higher Education)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 226 to 231, inclusive, together.

In accordance with the Programme for Government, a new Action Plan for Apprenticeship is in development to cover the period 2021-2025 with a target of 10,000 apprenticeship registrations per annum by 2025. The plan will also set out how the apprentice population will more closely reflect the general population and offer targeted supports for under-represented groups, including women and those with disabilities. It is expected that the Action Plan will be finalised in the coming weeks.

The Deputy will be aware that this Government have committed to taking a lead on boosting the availability and uptake of apprenticeships by increasing opportunity in the public sector. It is important to note that apprenticeship is an employer-led offering based on a contract of employment between the apprentice and their respective employer and action from public sector employers will be required to expand apprenticeship provision across the sector. As of December 2020, there were 313 apprentices employed across 48 departments, agencies and state bodies.

Actions within the plan to increase participation by under-represented groups will be based on stakeholder feedback (a summary of which may be accessed on www.gov.ie/dfheris) and also the current position of the 2018 Pathways to Participation in Apprenticeship Review. Actions within this review, in addition to the growth in breadth of apprenticeship programmes have resulted in increased participation in apprenticeship by women - with the population of women apprentices reaching 1,000 for the first time in December 2020.

Current initiatives underway include:

- A specific focus on female participation as part of the Generation Apprenticeship national promotional campaign. From Monday 25th January, SOLAS are running a media campaign over 3 weeks promoting the apprenticeship route and celebrating diversity and the 1000th female apprentice

- SOLAS offers a bursary of €2,666 to eligible employers, to encourage them to employ female apprentices in one of the craft apprenticeships.

- A Software Developer Associate Apprenticeship programme for women only commenced in November 2019. It is a 2 year course and is offered at level 6 on the National Framework of Qualifications. The off the job training is being delivered by Liberties College who are under the remit of the City of Dublin Education and Training Board.

- A total of 300 learners availed of dedicated pre-apprenticeship training in 2019, growing to 580 places in 2020.

- Technological University Dublin has developed an Access to Apprenticeship programme. This innovative pilot programme supports the transition of young people (16-24 years old) from areas of socio-economic disadvantage into craft apprenticeships. To date over 118 young men and women have progressed into apprenticeships through this program.

- SOLAS, in partnership with the HEA and with the support of the Apprenticeship Council, continued developing access pathways with all providers, including TU Dublin, during 2020 and into the 2020-2021 academic year.

- Almost 1,000 employers have registered with www.apprenticejobs.ie, which is designed to increase visibility of opportunities for all potential apprentices.

- Broader approaches to widening access to apprenticeships also include developing links between Youthreach and Community Training Centre (CTC) provision.

- The roll out of the 2020 Generation Apprenticeship competition at second level reached 156 second level schools, Youthreach Centres and Community Training Centres.

- A new user-friendly and interactive website to provide information on, and increase awareness of, apprenticeship was launched in October 2020 (www.apprenticeship.ie).