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Tuesday, 30 Nov 2021

Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Third Level Education

Question No. 61 replied to with Written Answers.

Questions (60)

Ciaran Cannon

Question:

60. Deputy Ciarán Cannon asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the breakdown of the funding allocated under the student assistance fund in 2021; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [58567/21]

View answer

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Further and Higher Education)

I am asking this question on behalf of Deputy Cannon. We must make every effort to ensure that students can remain in college, even when they are facing financial difficulty. Many of their part-time employment opportunities were removed as a result of Covid-19 and we now see the impact this is having on their personal finances. It is important that we have a clear picture of where funding is being allocated under the student assistance fund to ensure it is protecting those who need it most.

I thank Deputy Dillon for the question. I also thank him for talking about technological universities and for the work we have done together. I am delighted that the technological university for the north west now has a name. It will be the Atlantic technological university and will come into being in April. I am also delighted to see advertisements being placed to find the leadership of that technological university.

The student assistance fund is one of a suite of measures to support students participating in higher education. It is intended for students who are experiencing financial difficulties, whether those difficulties are temporary or permanent in nature. I am particularly aware of the impact of the pandemic on students. That is why this Government decided to provide the pandemic unemployment payment to students for such a lengthy period of time and why the student assistance fund has been more than doubled over two years. With that in mind, I have used Covid funding to significantly increase the student assistance fund.

The core funding amounts to €8.1 million, €1 million of which is ring-fenced core funding for the support of part-time students who are lone parents or members of the other access target groups identified in the national plan for equity of access to higher education. There is an additional €8.1 million for this year, funded through the Covid-19 return to education package for 2021.

The student assistance fund is administered by the HEA on behalf of my Department. Allocations from the fund are calculated using figures from each institution for the total student population and the number of disadvantaged students. In the previous academic year, 20,669 students benefited from the fund. That represents an increase of 6,339 students on the previous year.

With regard to Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology in Deputy Dillon's region, €576,587 was drawn down from the student assistance fund. Many of those living in the Deputy's region would also attend the National University of Ireland, Galway. Some €1.247 million was drawn down for this institution. I will provide a table to the Deputy as part of the answer to this question.

I thank the Minister and acknowledge the great strides he is making in ensuring that people have access to further and higher education and the options he has put in place over recent months. The recent reform of the SUSI grant and the CAO process are very welcome developments. I would appreciate some further information on the breakdown of the student assistance fund. The Minister gave us some figures. I understand it is being divided up and has a baseline core funding of €8.1 million. I see that was doubled as part of the Covid-19 response. The baseline funding was doubled and €1 million ring-fenced to support part-time students who are lone parents. Will there be any further changes to how this funding is allocated to specific institutions or is further engagement taking place in that regard? Will that be expanded in the months ahead?

I thank the Deputy for his interest in this matter. In 2015, the HEA commissioned an independent review of the student assistance fund as part of the national plan for equity of access to higher education. The main finding of that review was a confirmation that the student assistance fund continues to be highly valued as a source of support for students. Demand remains strong. What I like about the fund is the flexibility which allows it to cater for a very diverse group of students in a variety of circumstances. The SUSI scheme is legislated for and is quite prescriptive. The benefit of the student assistance fund is that it can be used for a student who meets a once-off financial difficulty, for example, a family bereavement or an unexpected bill.

It is there as an additional support for students who may fall on hard times. Those hard times may be temporary and may have been unforeseen. A full breakdown of how the fund is divided between the institution exists, and I will provide that to the Deputy.

I note there is a comprehensive list of approved institutions that can access the student assistance fund. I am seeking clarity on some of the plans progressing in the Minister’s Department. Several technological universities already exist and, as the Minister mentioned, the new Atlantic technological university, ATU, is coming on stream, driven by the Minister’s excellent work. In that regard, I wish to confirm that the tools are in place to ensure that this funding can be accessed by the students attending these institutions and that there are no unintended consequences.

In addition, it would be remiss of me not to ask if there are plans for similar funding to be put in place in respect of colleges in the education and training boards, ETBs. A range of colleges has come on stream in that sector, such as the Mayo College of Further Education and Training, MCFET, which is an amalgamation of Castlebar and Westport colleges of further education. I hope the students attending these colleges will have access to student assistance funding in a similar manner.

I thank the Deputy, and I assure him that students in the technological universities, including in the new Atlantic technological university serving Mayo, Galway, Sligo, Donegal and the north-west region, will indeed be eligible to apply.

Regarding the further education sector, I am glad the Deputy raised this matter, because we have made two significant changes to support students in further education and training. In the last budget, we abolished the post-leaving certificate, PLC, course levy. A €200 charge had been levied by the Government on people attending a PLC course and that was removed in the budget. It will now be free for people in this State to access PLC courses, so we are putting the State's money where its mouth is in respect of ensuring that people can upskill, reskill and get the training they require to get back into employment.

The second thing we have done is that we have brought in a new fund. Being truthful, we brought it in as a once-off measure in my first year in this role. It is called the mitigating educational disadvantage fund. It is a fund that did not exist before and is intended for community education, ETBs and colleges of further education to draw on. I was in a facility in Kildare yesterday, a youth development training centre, which has been able to buy laptops and to establish a sensory room. This is a sector which has done incredible work but that has been underfunded, and this new funding stream is helping significantly in that regard.

Question No. 61 replied to with Written Answers.

Further and Higher Education

Questions (62)

Jennifer Carroll MacNeill

Question:

62. Deputy Jennifer Carroll MacNeill asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science if he will report on the operation of the Speak Out tool for the anonymous reporting of violence and harassment in higher and further education institutions; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [58538/21]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Further and Higher Education)

I am asking this question on behalf of Deputy Carroll MacNeill. As the Minister will recall, Speak Out is an online, anonymous reporting tool for incidents of bullying, harassment, discrimination, assault, sexual harassment and sexual assault. It is being led by the Psychological Counsellors in Higher Education Ireland, PCHEI, group. Following the Minister’s launch last month of Speak Out, I am hoping to get an update on its roll-out and operations to date.

I thank Deputy Dillon for this important and timely question. The Speak Out tool, launched last month, as the Deputy said, is an online, anonymous reporting tool for incidents of bullying, harassment, discrimination, assault, sexual harassment and sexual assault, led by the PCHEI group, with funding provided by my Department. Speak Out allows staff and students to report harassment across all equality grounds, including sexual misconduct and racial discrimination.

The platform is currently available in the higher education sector and is being rolled out across 18 higher education institutions to support staff, students and visitors in speaking out against misconduct. So far, 14 higher education institutions have begun using the tool, while University College Dublin, UCD, already has a similar reporting tool in place. It is important to note that not everyone is ready to speak out through formal avenues, such as an official report, and this anonymous reporting tool will allow victims to detail their experiences through a safe, trauma-informed platform. This tool will raise awareness of the supports available to students and staff and encourage them to seek help, if they need it, and will provide them with access to the required information in that regard. It is hoped that engagement with this tool will encourage individuals to make formal complaints if and when they feel comfortable and ready to do so.

The tool enables institutions to track incidents across campuses. That will be important, in addition to enabling individuals to submit reports. The tool will provide data, and this facility will enable institutions to first track incidents and then to inform their review of policies and procedures and to develop targeted approaches. This includes tackling misconduct and also creating formal reporting routes for affected staff and students. As part of the framework for consent, institutions must report incidents of bullying, harassment, sexual harassment and sexual assault to the Higher Education Authority, HEA, and this tool will allow them to do so in a timely and standardised fashion. I welcome, in particular, that institutions will report next year on statistics gathered through this tool and an assessment of its impact and usage will be carried out at the end of this academic year.

It is a great initiative and it is fantastic to see a national roll-out of this tool. That is certainly aligned with the ethos of cross-institutional collaboration in response to misconduct in the higher education institutions. This aspect is very welcome. Depending on the impact of the initiative, and its success in combating this behaviour, I hope that we will see the number of institutions using the tool grow beyond the current total of 18 that have signed up so far during this roll-out. I am conscious that the development of the tool was initially funded by the then Department of Education and Skills in late 2019 and early 2020 to the tune of €80,000. That development was supplemented with funding from the HEA in 2020 to the amount of €96,000. Prevention is also of paramount importance, and I note that additional funding of €400,000 has been allocated to several initiatives around the subject of consent. I would appreciate any further information that the Minister might be able to provide regarding this initiative.

I am really pleased by the progress being made in the sector. I thank the staff and student leaders in the sector for all the work that is taking place on the issue of consent and sexual harassment and ensuring that good reporting tools are in place in this regard. Good work had been done in respect of developing a national framework, but national frameworks are not enough. Institutions must own the framework and they must determine what they are going to do on their campuses to keep their staff and students safe.

For the first time, all institutions in Ireland must have an action plan on tackling sexual harassment, specific to each institution, published on their websites, and they must also report to the HEA on delivery. Some good work is underway in the Leas-Cheann Comhairle's city of Galway on the Active* Consent programme. Dr. Pádraig MacNeela is leading that initiative. It is a really good information resource for staff and students, and these are tools that simply did not exist until recent years. The University College Cork, UCC, Bystander Intervention programme is similar. This issue is not confined to higher education, but I want the sector to lead in this area and we have many leaders working tirelessly to ensure that happens.

I thank the Minister. We must ensure that the Speak Out tool will be therapeutically beneficial to those speaking out. The hope is that engagement with the tool will encourage those using it to seek support. Support and intervention in this regard are crucially important. Most important of all, however, support services must be provided to those speaking out, once they have submitted a report, to assure them that we believe them and that we stand with and support them. I understand that these support services are based on the answers given throughout the online tool reporting process and that it provides a bespoke and tailored list of support services. I wish to confirm that is a key priority. We must ensure that the required services are there and in place to coincide with the roll-out of the tool.

It very much is, and, as the Deputy said, it is so important that the tool uses affirmative language as well, because this is an anonymous reporting tool. It is based on similar tools used in higher education institutions in the United Kingdom. As a result of anonymity, the tool uses affirmative language, such as “perpetrator”, to assure those speaking out that we believe them, and that we stand with them. Through this trauma-informed lens, it has been ensured that the tool will be therapeutically beneficial to those speaking out through those affirmations. The hope is that engagement with the tool will assist victims in seeking support and also, in due course, in making a formal report.

Support services are provided to those speaking out once they have submitted a report. Those support services are based on the answers given throughout the online form and, as the Deputy suggested, this provides a bespoke and tailored list of support services. A list of all support services is also available prior to filling out the online form. The support services, therefore, are available at the start, but at the end, once the form has been submitted online, a tailored range of bespoke victim-centred approaches are provided in respect of supports as well.

Third Level Education

Questions (63)

Aindrias Moynihan

Question:

63. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the progress being made on the current review of the student grant scheme; when he expects the final report and the timeframe to implement recommendations therein; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [58651/21]

View answer

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Further and Higher Education)

While improvements have, to some extent, been made to the SUSI grant scheme, the scale of the grant is still well out of step with the financial burden that students experience, concerning accommodation or the cost of living, for example. We are some five years on from the Cassells report. Will the Minister outline the up-to-date position regarding that review and on having a new and improved scheme of grants for students?

I thank Deputy Moynihan for his question and for his regular engagement with myself and my office on the issue of student supports and the need to do better, reform and overhaul the student grant system. I am happy to give him an update on the review of the SUSI student grant scheme. This was a very important commitment in the programme for Government, which will help shape decision-making on how we support students over the years to come. I thank the Deputy for acknowledging that there have been some changes since our three-party Government came into office, including the first increase in the SUSI grant in a decade, the first increase in thresholds in probably the same period, the first reduction in the adjacency rate, which may impact the Deputy's own constituents in terms of ensuring more students can avail of the higher rate of the grant, and the first increase in postgraduate supports. In the relatively short lifetime of this Government, four concrete measures have been put in place. There is a need to do more and the programme for Government commits to an overhaul of the student support system, not just additional measures in the current system.

Following a procurement process, the review of the SUSI student grant scheme has been undertaken by Indecon, under the guidance of a steering group which has included student and sectoral representatives and representatives from other relevant Departments. I am pleased to say there was significant public interest in the review. Approximately 280 written submissions were received. A very welcome feature of the process of engagement was that students were involved. I understand that over 9,000 survey responses were received from students across the country. This very strong element of public engagement, in addition to the economic work undertaken by Indecon, should provide a solid evidence basis for the recommendations of the review.

I am currently awaiting the final report of the review of the student grant system. I understand as recently as today that the work is at a very advanced stage, and is at the point of finalisation by Indecon and the steering committee. My expectation is that I will receive the final report before Christmas. My intention then is to submit the report to Government, and then to publish it. The Deputy will understand that implementation of the report's recommendations will be a matter for consideration by Government and these Houses.

I acknowledge the improvements that have been made in the SUSI grant. As the Minister mentioned, the non-adjacent rate is very significant for people around mid-Cork from Enniskean and Newcestown up around to Macroom and Millstreet and right across the top of the Boggeraghs as far as Millstreet, who would now be eligible for the higher rate of grant. The cost of rental accommodation for students is very much higher than what is available in the grant. Many students will be working during term time and throughout the summer as well. Only about €4,500 of that is allowed. They are ending up working against themselves with the fee on it. Is that going to be taken into account for the new review? People who are working should not be penalised for the grant.

I thank the Deputy. I am pleased to hear that the changes we made in the last budget will have such a positive impact for many of his constituents. We would like to do more and build on that in future budgets as well. I am at a slight disadvantage because I have not yet received the outcome of the review. However, the terms of reference are quite instructive in terms of what we would like to see happen as a Government. The terms of reference have asked that the review: examine the maintenance grant values and their income thresholds; look at the definition of "approved course" because we do not currently provide grants for part-time provision, which, I think, is a weakness in the system; look at the adjacent and non-adjacent rates, and we have begun to move on that; look at postgraduate grant support; and benchmark student supports in Ireland against other jurisdictions because it is important to see how we are holding. In the context of the Deputy's question, the key point is probably the last term of reference, to identify the real cost of attending further education and higher education in Ireland, and to identify the current supports in place. The real cost has changed over the ten years of the SUSI scheme.

It is very important that any new funding scheme is going to support lifelong learning and that people who want to return to study later in life and who may have previously gained a qualification would not be excluded. They are excluded under the current model where applicants have to show progression. It is very important that a lifelong learning opportunity would be available with any funding model.

If there is a change of circumstances in somebody's household, the current system makes them have to go through a whole review and then take into account an appeal. That is very difficult in a household where they have seen a sudden drop in income over the last year. There should be some way of circumventing that when someone is making an application so they can identify a change in circumstances up front and not be delayed until November or maybe even January or February to do an appeal. These matters need to be looked at in any review. I would be pleased if the Minister could clarify the situation.

I do not disagree with anything the Deputy said. The profile of a learner or student is going to change in Ireland. Not every student will be 18 straight out of school and packing the bags to go to college for four years. More and more we are going to see people in their 40s, 50s and 60s with full-time jobs, mortgages and some dependants, needing to access to education. There is a challenge for us on two fronts. One is to make the current student support scheme more flexible. That is why I have alluded to the issue of the definition of an approved course, including part-time provisions. That is in the terms of reference. Then there is the more broad point beyond the SUSI support scheme regarding lifelong learning and the model we have in place. As recently as last week I met with the head of the OECD in Paris. We have commissioned them to examine what policy levers we should pull as a Government in respect of supporting people to access lifelong learning. How do we help employers that want to upskill their staff but do not know how they can viably or economically do that? How do we help the citizen who might not qualify for a State support today to be able to access it in an affordable way? The OECD review alongside the SUSI review will answer these questions in the course of 2022.

Third Level Education

Questions (64)

Pa Daly

Question:

64. Deputy Pa Daly asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science his plans to review the criteria and income thresholds for SUSI grants to ensure that a family qualifying for the working family payment is deemed eligible for a fee and maintenance SUSI grant; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [58611/21]

View answer

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Further and Higher Education)

Iarradh an cheist seo cheana féin le blianta ach níor freagraíodh í fós. Cén plean atá ag an Aire chun na daoine atá in ann deontas SUSI a fháil agus atá ar an working family payment a bheith in ann cothabháil agus táillí ollscoile a fháil? Are there any plans for families in receipt of the working family payment to be eligible for the fee and the maintenance SUSI grant?

I thank the Deputy for the question and the important issue he is raising. It is important to say at the outset that the SUSI scheme does take account of the circumstances of people in receipt of the working family payment. First, as the Deputy knows, the working family payment is treated as an income disregard. This means that it is not included in the reckonable income for the student grant means test. Furthermore, unlike other social protection payments which are paid to individuals, the working family payment is a payment deemed to be paid to a family. In recognition of this, the SUSI scheme contains provisions which allow this payment to be recognised for the purposes of meeting the eligibility criteria for the special rate of grant, which is the highest maintenance grant support available. This ensures that those students most in need receive supports which are commensurate with their needs.

More widely, as the Deputy will be aware and as I have been outlining in the House this evening, as part of this year’s budget I and the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, made the first substantial changes to the rates and thresholds for the SUSI scheme in a decade. We intend to do more in this regard. We will also be informed in terms of a more significant overhaul of the student grant scheme when we receive that finalised report of the student grant scheme review next month. This will be critical in informing decision-making in future Estimates processes about changes to the rates and thresholds, as well as informing policy priorities and future considerations. I will certainly ensure that any of the issues the Deputy illustrates in this House are considered in that context.

This may not affect very many families but it is very important nonetheless. I understand the exclusion of the working family payment from reckonable income and that is appropriate. The fact remains that there are families who are in receipt of this payment and in order to survive, raise their families and educate them, they do that in spite of the fact that they are denied a maintenance grant due to the income thresholds. These income thresholds exacerbate the problem because they are banded. For example, a family that I know that has seven children, four of whom were in college, is assessed to be in the same band as a family with four children. The Minister is aware of the amount of college fees and the maintenance that is required. The cost of educating and raising each additional child is not considered at all in the SUSI calculation. This affects families in Kerry particularly because they have to travel to go to college. I have heard of children who have had to leave college because of the financial pressures.

I very much take the seriousness of the point the Deputy is making.

Regardless of whether a large or small number are affected, the point is important and valid. I approached the answer to the question in that spirit.

We are slightly at risk of talking at cross purposes. Regarding the relevance of SUSI, I want to be clear again that the working family payment is an income disregard so there is no student who is not receiving the grant today because payment tipped him or her over an income level. The payment is disregarded; it is not included in the calculation of reckonable income as part of the student grant means test. While is it not included in calculating someone’s income, we do include it as an eligible payment to qualify for the special rate of grant to try to make sure the higher rate of grant is targeted at those most in need of the grant support.

I have some figures for the Deputy. SUSI has confirmed that the number of students awarded the special rate of maintenance by virtue of the working family payment in 2021 was 5,299. However, I will be happy to address the broader issue the Deputy is raiding.

Will the Minister engage with the Minister for Social Protection on this? The former Minister responsible for higher education, Deputy Bruton, promised to correct what he called this “anomaly” four years ago in response to a question by a Deputy from another party. A family in need of social protection with one assessment is denied the right to educate children with another assessment. Families I know have children who have dropped out because of the financial stress. This was presented to me a number of times. It can be sorted out with a little collaboration to correct what the Minister’s colleague described as an “anomaly”. It is denying affected families the opportunity to educate their children. I ask the Minister to deal with this.

I will indeed engage with the Minster for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, on this issue. I am pleased to say that, when it comes to the SUSI review, we specifically included the Department of Social Protection in the steering group. What we all want is to ensure no poverty traps exist regarding any State support. I am cognisant that the working family payment is not a barrier to any family receiving the SUSI grant, but I am also cognisant of the broader point Deputy Daly is making. I will certainly ensure the transcript of this discussion is shared with my colleague, the Minister for Social Protection, and considered in the context of the SUSI review.

Further and Higher Education

Questions Nos. 66 and 67 replied to with Written Answers.

Questions (65)

Éamon Ó Cuív

Question:

65. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the increases or decreases that have been made to the rates of grant under the SUSI grant scheme for undergraduate and postgraduate students since 2008; the years they were made; if he plans to increase these grants for the 2022–23 academic year; the provision made in the Estimates of his Department for same; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [58580/21]

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Oral answers (30 contributions) (Question to Further and Higher Education)

People think in terms of what is really available for real money, taking inflation into account. I am seeking to know the increases or decreases in the rates of grants under the SUSI grant scheme for undergraduates and postgraduates since 2008, the years the changes were made, and if the Minister intends to increase the grants for the 2022–23 academic year. Has he made provision in the Estimates to do that?

I thank the Deputy for the important question on SUSI grant schemes and their real value. I suggest that I provide him with some of the information in tabular form to assist with the discussion this evening.

As part of budget 2022, a budget of the three-party Government, we announced the first major changes to the student grant scheme rates and eligibility. These include an increase to the standard and special rates of maintenance, which have not increased in over a decade. These changes will take effect in the 2022–23 academic year. This has allowed us to make what I believe is early progress in addressing what we expect will be some of the themes emerging from the review of the student grant scheme due next month. This includes trying to ensure that the scheme keeps pace with changes in the economy, people’s earnings and changes in the cost of living.

The package we announced is provided for in the budget. It will include an additional €15 million for expenditure next year and around €33 million in full-year costs to enhance the financial supports under the student grant scheme. For the academic year 2022–23, this will mean an increase in all student grant maintenance payments, including the special rate of grant, of €200 per year. This will benefit approximately 62,000 students.

Importantly, the income threshold to qualify for the standard rate of student grant has been increased by €1,000. This is important because income thresholds have not been touched in a decade. The qualifying distance criterion for students to qualify for the non-adjacency rate of grant, which affects the Deputy’s constituents, has been reduced from 45 km to 30 km, effective from the start of the 2022–23 academic year. We have prioritised these changes for the 2022–23 academic year and they will benefit thousands of students, building on the improvements we made last year in respect of the postgraduate student supports. In this regard, we increased the postgraduate fee grant from €2,000 to €3,500 and the income threshold for postgraduate students from €31,500 to €54,240. We had not increased the rates before that. If I were to read out the rates, we would note they were static for a decade until we made these changes.

May I correct the Minister?

I am sorry. They were reduced and were then static.

They were reduced.

They were, indeed. Yes.

As well as that, the figure concerning the adjacency rate changed, so all the Minister has done is gone back to where we were.

We are not even there yet.

As well as that, the Minister absolutely butchered the postgraduate rates. There has been a dramatic regression since 2008 but the Minister very cleverly glossed over all that. This is despite my having asked a very specific question as to where we were in 2008 and where we are today, even allowing for the miserly increases that were given in the budget for 2022–23. We have gone back again to the great ploy that has been employed for ten years: the review. This means the poor students in college in 2021–22 get nothing. Under the current Government, students in 2022–23 will see a little bit of redressing, back to the rates of 2008. If the Minister checks the cost of going to college, he will see there was a significant difference between 2008 and today. Can he outline for me in detail the regression since 2008, as I asked for?

I do not need a history lesson, and neither does the Deputy, in respect of some of the very difficult economic decisions this country made after the troika period and, indeed, during that period, when many difficult public expenditure decisions had to be made. We are not going to debate on the floor of the Dáil why they were made, I am quite sure. When our two parties came together along with the Green Party in this Government, we made a commitment, in the programme for Government, to improve student grants. Consider what occurred after I was appointed by the Taoiseach to my Department. In the first budget we delivered as a Government — ours is a Government of three parties — we increased student grants for postgraduates in addition to income thresholds and rates. In the second budget of this Government, we increased income thresholds and made increases in respect of the adjacency and non-adjacency rates. We also increased the overall rate. Have we reached the destination? No. Does everybody from the Taoiseach down in this Government intend to do more? Yes. Were student grants reduced, as the Deputy wishes me to say on the record of the House? Yes, they absolutely were. Why were they reduced? The Deputy is well aware of the reason, as am I. However, we are making progress, not just to get back to where we were but also to go further.

The great announcement of €200 per annum means a very small increase to the income threshold at a time when, because of inflation, incomes are rising. We are a country mile away from where we were in 2008. The Minister might tell me what was available for postgraduate students in 2008 by comparison with what is available under his fantastic package for 2022–23.

Which the Deputy voted for.

It is your package.

I am a member of a Government party but I do not have to agree with everything members of the Government do. That is just a fact. It is one of the unfortunate parts of coalition. What were the rates in 2008, and what are the rates now? I believe third level education is incredibly important, as is making it accessible to those on low and medium incomes. The Minister might tell me the year in which he expects to get the big money to at least get us back to the rates of 2008, not to mind making all the other improvements he is promising.

The Minister of State in my Department, Deputy Niall Collins, the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Minister for Transport, Deputy Ryan, and I — and, as I believed, every member of the Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Green parliamentary parties — are determined to increase the student supports. I have here some of the decisions the Deputy made on student supports during his time in government in 2008, 2009 and 2010.

There was an economic crisis-----

We are all aware of the economic crisis, Deputy

But the economic crisis is long gone, according to yourself.

Could we hear the reply through the Chair?

My apologies.

I am very much aware of the situation we saw during Deputy Ó Cuív's time in the last Fianna Fáil Government, and indeed during the time of the Fine Gael-Labour Government, when very difficult decisions on registration fees and student grants had to be made. I will provide to the Deputy, as an appendix to this answer, information in tabular form for each of those years on postgraduate grants, maintenance grants and registration fees. That is all here for the Deputy to see, from 2008 to 2021.

Will the Minister publish that?

It will be published on the record of the House.

I know that, but I would make sure it is well published.

The Deputy does not need to do that. The replies are published. That is how parliamentary questions are published. The Deputy has been in the House long enough to know that.

Has the Government published that information in places where people will read it?

That is exactly what we will do. In budget 2022 we have brought about a significant increase as a statement of intent. Nobody is suggesting it is the final destination, but we will also settle the question of a sustainable funding model for higher education.

That is not much joy to the students in college now.

The Deputy did not do much for them himself.

I did an awful lot.

Questions Nos. 66 and 67 replied to with Written Answers.

Third Level Education

Questions Nos. 69 to 71, inclusive, replied to with Written Answers.

Questions (68)

Bernard Durkan

Question:

68. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the extent to which he continues to facilitate the provision of an adequate number of qualified academics and technicians to meet the requirements of the modern workforce; the areas he has identified as requiring special attention; his plans to meet such requirements in the future; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [58606/21]

View answer

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Further and Higher Education)

This question seeks to ascertain the extent to which the Minister hopes to be able to meet the demands of the workplace in respect of academic and technical placements in the short to medium term.

I thank Deputy Durkan for this important question. I thank him also for the time we spent yesterday in Celbridge and Maynooth viewing further education and higher education facilities. I very much enjoyed it, though he still has not given us the winning lotto numbers.

Ireland has developed a national skills system across further and higher education and apprenticeships, lifelong learning and human capital development under the framework of the national skills strategy and underpinned by strong partnership with key stakeholders. It is firmly focused on responding in an agile and flexible way to priority skills needs and to changes in the world of work driven by technology to ensure that Ireland has a skilled and productive workforce. This skills system, which includes the National Skills Council, the regional skills forums and the skills analysis and forecasting bodies, fosters engagement, dialogue and collaboration with key stakeholders on skills issues. This skills infrastructure informs and drives responsive and flexible forecasting, planning and provision to meet the skills required in the workplace across all sectors of the economy.

My Department's statement of strategy identifies a number of areas for special attention and on which significant work has been undertaken, including, for example, inclusion, alignment of our tertiary education system between further and higher education, apprenticeships and digital literacy. Additionally, our skills policies continue to observe and take into account major trends impacting the labour market, including population ageing, automation, and digitisation and climate action.

As for the requirement for graduates equipped for technical roles in our workforce, I am pleased to say that enrolment on STEM-related higher education courses has increased by 14% since 2014, from 59,000 students to 67,400 students. Importantly, the number of students graduating from these STEM-related courses has gone up by 29%, from 16,500 in 2014 to 21,300 in 2020.

In addition, two key initiatives now in place in higher education, the Springboard+ programme and the human capital initiative, are designed to meet identified technical skills needs across all sectors of our economy. These initiatives provide subsidised places on a broad range of courses in engineering, ICT and science.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Will he comment on the difficulty now experienced by the workplace in general of filling the posts that are becoming available? Does he feel it will be possible to produce the number of qualified graduates to fill those positions in academia and in the technical areas, knowing that we will face extra competition from across the globe?

This whole discussion on skills is one of the most important ones we can have in these Houses because so much else of what we talk about here is dependent on getting this right. We talk a lot about housing. The Deputy will have heard me talk about this yesterday in Kildare. We need about 27,000 more people to work in the construction sector. The Deputy and I are not going to build the houses. That is why we are putting a concerted focus on apprenticeships. At the moment we take on about 6,000 construction apprentices a year. That will rise to 9,000 next year, a 50% increase. From January we will bring in a subsidy whereby we will pay employers about €2,000 per year per new apprentice they take on to make it easier for employers. We are changing the CAO website such that the young students I was speaking to in Kildare yesterday see not just the university options but also the technical options, the colleges of further education and the apprenticeships and that they are not hidden away as fallback options but seen as real, viable, important careers, which they are. That attention and focus we are providing on apprenticeships will really improve the technical skills needs of our country, coupled with the answer I gave the Deputy regarding the focus on STEM, engineering, ICT and science in our universities.

I thank the Minister for his interaction with the students in Celbridge and Maynooth yesterday. Arising from that, does he continue to be convinced of the ability to draw on more of those students when they qualify and to help them to qualify by various means and incentives between now and the next three or four years, given the urgent and pressing necessity to be able to fill the positions that are available in this country at both levels?

Yes, I do. I am really encouraged by what I saw yesterday and what I saw of the research ecosystem in Maynooth and the real focus there on doing more in research and collaborating. I am encouraged by the meeting I had with the new president of NUI Maynooth yesterday, her management team and the discussions we had on collaboration with further education. I really want to see the education ecosystem in Kildare - the colleges of further education, the secondary schools and the university - working together and pulling together to meet the skills needs of the county and the region. The students I am most thinking of, after my visit yesterday with the Deputy, are the students of Leixlip Youthreach. We cannot leave anybody behind. School does not work for everybody for a whole variety of reasons, and we have a duty of care and an obligation to make sure that those students, learners and citizens can reach their full potential. I am more determined than ever after our visit yesterday to work with the Deputy to get a proper, purpose-built facility for the students of Leixlip Youthreach.

Questions Nos. 69 to 71, inclusive, replied to with Written Answers.

Third Level Education

Questions Nos. 73 to 88, inclusive, replied to with Written Answers.

Questions (72)

Bernard Durkan

Question:

72. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the extent to which he continues to make provision for an increased supply of higher level graduates throughout the country, with particular reference to the need to meet the requirements of industry and academia; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [58607/21]

View answer

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Further and Higher Education)

I ask the Minister for an increased supply of higher level graduates throughout the country, with particular reference to the need to meet the requirements of industry and academia. It is a very similar question to my last one but is focused slightly differently.

I will give somewhat of a similar answer but I will try to add a few bits of new information.

We have an advanced system of skills provision in our country, whether you look at the success of our secondary school system and the Department of Education, our further education and training facilities or our higher education. We also know, however, that we cannot be complacent. No one owes this country a living. No one owes any of us a living. We can never stand still. A phrase we like to use when talking about skills is that we can be confident but not complacent.

Last week I travelled to the OECD headquarters and met the head of the OECD to commission a body of work to be done by the OECD on our skills infrastructure. I want the OECD to look at what we are doing in this country, what we are doing well and what we need to do better. Crucially, I want to ask it to come up with policy proposals and evidence-based advice on lifelong learning. We do a very good job of educating our children, getting them through school, getting more and more of them into third level and out the other side and on they go. There is more work to be done there but that is going relatively well. Looking at lifelong learning, however, we are not where we need to be. As I said in answer to an earlier question, more and more the learners of today and the learner of the future will be not just 18 or 19; they will be 45, 55 or 65. They will have a job, a house and a mortgage. They could have children and dependants. They will need to access skills and upskilling and reskilling in a much more flexible way. They might need to be provided online, after the working day, remotely or in microcredential form. That is where the benefit of this still relatively new Department can be, in terms of developing the policy proposal on creating a lifelong learning model that works for Ireland. I am really pleased that we have now commissioned the OECD to do that body of work. It will engage with all stakeholders throughout the course of 2022. Indeed, it has already started. I want to be in a position to be able to advise the Government of policy proposals we should consider to improve lifelong learning rates in our country.

On the basis of the information currently available, is it possible to identify to a reasonably accurate extent the availability of sufficient students who can graduate in the time ahead in order to be able to fill the positions that are now becoming available very regularly, as opposed to what happened in the past, when we had to export our population to get jobs abroad? The jobs are here now and we need to fill them to a greater degree in the future.

The short answer is "Yes".

We have a good pipeline of graduates and apprentices. One of the decisions taken by Government and by my colleague, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage in recent weeks and months - providing certainty of funding for construction and public investment in construction for the years ahead - can provide an assurance to people looking to work in construction that there will be work, jobs and well-paid jobs in this sector not just this year or next year, but right through for the next number of years. Anybody involved in the housing debate, an honest one, will know two things: first, that the State is going to spend a lot of money on investment in housing in the coming years; and second, that there is going to be a requirement for many more people to work in the sector. I hope that sends out a message to our young - and not so young - talented people abroad that they can come back to this country and work in this sector, which is a sector, let us be honest, that was decimated during the bad years. Second, I hope it sends a message to the young 16-year-olds, 17-year-olds and 18-year-olds sitting in a classroom today or tomorrow, that all of a sudden housing, construction, retrofitting are real areas where there are well-paid jobs available now and into the future.

The Minister made an interesting comment to the people in Celbridge yesterday. He said that nobody should be left behind and that each student is an investment in the future, in the economy and in the quality of life. It is important to recognise that and encourage the people who may feel, for one reason or another, a lack of confidence or whatever, or that they cannot compete. They can, and with continued support, they will. Is the Minister satisfied that sufficient support is made available for them and will be available in the future?

I am satisfied that we are beginning to make progress, but I am not satisfied that we are there yet, to be truthful. We need Youthreach to be much more prominent as an option for young people who have difficulty with school for a whole variety of reasons. We need to help them get to Youthreach, be made aware of it and have a better understanding of it.

We need to get real about adult literacy. We live in a knowledge-based economy of well-educated people, but nearly one in five of us cannot read, nearly one in four of us cannot understand numbers, for example, on our ESB bill, and almost one in two of us lacks basic digital skills. We cannot leave people locked out. That is why we have launched our new adult literacy plan, the first ever ten-year adult literacy, numeracy and digital skills plan. We have not just launched a plan; we now have money to hire a literacy co-ordinator in every ETB in Ireland in 2022.

We must move beyond the narrow view of education that it is age-bound or that it is just for some people. It must be for everybody and it must be provided in a way that works for everyone. There are still too many people who are at risk of being locked of full economic or societal participation if we do not get this right.

Questions Nos. 73 to 88, inclusive, replied to with Written Answers.

Student Accommodation

Questions (89, 98, 100, 102, 132)

Aindrias Moynihan

Question:

89. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science his engagement with third level educational institutes and the various stakeholders to resolve accommodation issues currently experienced by students; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [58652/21]

View answer

Peter Fitzpatrick

Question:

98. Deputy Peter Fitzpatrick asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the plans in place with the shortage of student accommodation on and off campus to help students with the high costs; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [58616/21]

View answer

Rose Conway-Walsh

Question:

100. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the steps he is taking to create a situation in which universities are able to provide on-campus accommodation at affordable rates; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [58643/21]

View answer

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

102. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the measures he will put in place to alleviate immediately the pressures that students are under in view of the chronic shortage of student accommodation which has resulted in students living in hotels, couch surfing and travelling long distances to attend lectures; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [58587/21]

View answer

Joe Flaherty

Question:

132. Deputy Joe Flaherty asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the details of his strategy to increase the supply and affordability of student accommodation; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [58633/21]

View answer

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Further and Higher Education)

The availability and cost of accommodation is a huge burden for students. I am not sure if the Minister has had the opportunity to engage directly with colleges or different stakeholders and property owners on the issue. I ask the Minister to outline what action is being taken to reduce that stress and burden on students and their families.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 89, 98, 100, 102 and 132 together.

I thank the Deputy for the question on housing and student accommodation. The first thing this Government must and will do is to be honest that we need a new and better model for student accommodation. Yes, we have seen the supply - and I can ream off statistics - of purpose-built private student accommodation significantly increase, but that is not the point. We have not seen a pipeline of significant scale of college-owned affordable accommodation.

I have engaged directly in the Deputy's own county, with University College Cork and Munster Technological University. I have engaged with the Irish Universities Association, IUA, the Technological Higher Education Association, THEA, the representative bodies, and the Union of Students in Ireland, USI. Crucially, I have also engaged with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage on the issue. We have established a working group, chaired by my Department, working with housing and university and college stakeholders to try to devise a new model to build college-owned affordable student accommodation. I hope to be in a position to outline that model early in 2022. We have asked the universities and the institutes of technology to prepare a pipeline of projects on the understanding that a new model that will address some of their concerns is forthcoming.

As I indicated earlier, if at all possible, we should look at some of the cost-rental models the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage is bringing forward, and see if there could be a tailor-made or a version of that that would work for the third level sector. I am very happy to hear the Deputy's feedback. I should also say that tomorrow I will meet with student union presidents from across the country online - all of them are invited - to talk about the issue of student accommodation and get their feedback and views, too.

I thank the Minister for the overview. While some colleges do provide accommodation, others do not. Is the Minister focused on all colleges, or just on those already providing accommodation? There are places where we need to make a start.

There are many private property owners involved, whether they are large apartment block owners or individuals who let houses. Has the Minister had an opportunity to engage with them on the issue? They are a very significant component in all of this. It is hugely important that there is reasonably priced accommodation available.

In respect of rent a room options, previously, these would have been more in the line of digs, but very little is available at this stage. Has the Minister looked across the board at all the different options to reduce the stress on students?

First, we are looking at all options across the range. All colleges need to see the provision of accommodation as a core component of what they need to do, because otherwise, a lack of it will become an issue in terms of participation in education. In fairness to them, institutes of technology and technological universities, until the publication of Housing for All in recent weeks, were not allowed or enabled to borrow to build accommodation. In the Deputy's own neck of the woods, I think there is huge potential for the technological universities, for example, Munster Technological University in Kerry and Cork, to name just two in the south-west region. There will be focus on all institutions, but a particular focus will be placed on the former institutes of technology and new technological universities. There could be some potential low-hanging fruit there if we can get the model right.

On private operators, I do not believe, from memory, that I have directly engaged with them, but I certainly will. On the rent a room scheme, more can be done in that regard in terms of a short-term fix or assistance. I think the Covid pandemic impacted that. I am already engaging with student unions and others about how we can look at rebooting that or perhaps even remodelling it for the next academic year.

One of the big issues that students who can get accommodation face is the payment of rent in one big lump sum, either at the start of the year or twice or three times during the year. They are looking at paying at least of a third or a quarter of it in one go. We are now moving towards the end of the first term and that massive demand for money is reaching many households around the country at this stage. Are steps being taken to prevent that and to provide a more realistic option so that people who are renting will be able to pay it and spread out the load, instead of having to respond to one big demand or the two or three big demands? It is hugely important that there is realistic accommodation available at a reasonable price for students. Those kind of issues need to be dealt with.

The short answer is "Yes". We came together on an Oireachtas cross-party basis on legislation passed by the Minister of Housing, Local Government and Heritage to ban that practice, so that no renter, student or otherwise, can now be asked to pay more than one month's rent plus a deposit. It was a huge issue that USI and others were highlighting last year. Students were wrongly being asked to pay, four, five or six months' rent in one go. I am pleased to say that we have made legislative provision to outlaw that. No more than one month's rent and one month's deposit will be required now.

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