Deputy Pringle will be relieved to know that I cannot sing. He will also know the biggest issue facing students is Covid-19, so he will excuse me for continuing to speak about it. If we get the next few days, weeks and months right, we will begin to address and rectify so many of the difficult and horrific challenges young people in this country have faced.
I thank Deputy Ó Broin and all of the Deputies who signed the Bill for their honest attempt to address the very difficult circumstances that many students have found themselves in as a result of this pandemic. I am very pleased that the Government is in a position to allow the Bill to pass Second Stage and move to pre-legislative scrutiny. I note that this has been welcomed by Deputy Ó Broin and others.
I welcome the intent behind the legislation. My colleague, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage outlined, on behalf of his Department and the Government, outlined our approach to this matter and our commitment to incorporate the matters raised by the USI in the forthcoming residential tenancies legislation. It is very important that the Bill advances on its journey through the Oireachtas. As the Minister with responsibility for further and higher education, I particularly thank the USI for the work it put into the legislation and the detailed consideration it gave to a range of issues on specific protections required in legislation for students. I stand with them and by them on this. I also thank the USI for more than this, because what the legislation has done is allow us to kick-start or restart an urgent conversation that must take place and that must be followed by action on student accommodation.
The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage was correct when he told the House earlier that the majority of students in university or college-owned accommodation received refunds, credit notes or other flexible arrangements when they were not in a position to take up their accommodation because of Covid-19. I thank the sector for this. What this actually showed very clearly was the benefit of college-owned accommodation, why we need more of it and why we cannot be so reliant on private supply when it comes to student accommodation.
As part of this debate, we need to have a broader discussion urgently on the issue of student accommodation in the context of overall housing supply. We cannot continue to allow a situation where third level students are almost pitted against young workers and young families in trying to secure a limited number of houses, apartments, flats or whatever. All this does is drive up prices and pressure for everybody. We need to look at what more we can do to support students, and I acknowledge the efforts the legislation makes in this regard and I wish to see it incorporated in legislation. We also need to ask ourselves what more we can do to make sure there is more on-campus college-owned accommodation.
For a start, and this is my view as the Minister with responsibility for higher education, we need to address the anomaly that exists whereby a university can use its borrowing framework to build on-campus college-owned accommodation but a technological university cannot. When all of us in these Houses voted for technological universities we did not vote for them to be second-tier universities. We need to rectify this anomaly and I have begun discussions with the Departments of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and Finance and others in this regard. Our technological universities have an opportunity to transform education throughout the country and address regional imbalance. If our technological universities have an option to build on-campus accommodation, all of a sudden students will have an opportunity to move to the regions and live on campus and our technological universities will thrive. The benefits of this could be significant for students and housing supply. I am very pleased to tell the Dáil today that I have started work in this area and am engaging with my officials and are engaging with other Departments. I look forward to updating the House on this matter in the very near future.
As colleagues know, there is a national student accommodation strategy, which was launched by the previous Government in July 2017. It sets out a number of actions to increase the supply of student accommodation and to try to ease some of the pressure on the private rental sector. The strategy was developed by the former Department of Education and Skills in conjunction with the former Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government and in consultation with stakeholders across the third level sector. It set a target of providing 7,000 additional student accommodation bed spaces by the end of 2019 and the provision of 21,000 bed spaces by the end of 2024. I am pleased to say the 2019 target was exceeded, with 8,300 bed spaces completed by the end of 2019. As of the end of 2020, more than 10,000 bed spaces have been completed.
I ask colleagues to be clear that I do not want my view to be misrepresented or distorted. I do not believe the strategy goes far enough, for the reasons I have just outlined. It is important and that it needs to continue to play a part and not only hit but exceed its targets. Alongside this, we need a strategy that relies less on private operators and more on college-owned accommodation. This is what our students want, what their parents want and what our institutions want. I look forward to having an opportunity to return to the House shortly to discuss badly needed progress in this area.
Regarding legislative change, today’s debate has been very constructive. I have listened to almost all of it and it has helped to tease out some of the important issues at play and the reasonable points made by students, their parents and Deputies have been highlighting. As mentioned by the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, the issues raised in the Private Members' Bill are under examination with a view to introducing Government legislation this year. However, it is important that we allow the Bill to pass Second Stage.
I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute again to the USI. I want to particularly take this opportunity, in case I do not have another one, to pay tribute on the record of the Dáil to the USI's outgoing president, Lorna Fitzpatrick, for her tireless work. She has led the USI at a time of massive difficulty and challenge for everyone in the country and for students. Through my weekly engagement with Lorna on the Covid steering committee, she has constantly raised the issues faced by students to the very top of government in a very robust manner and I thank her for this. She sits on our Covid steering group and the issue of accommodation is something she regularly raises. She has also led a very important conversation on mental health and student well-being, and I am pleased to tell the Dáil today that as part of her work in chairing a new student well-being and engagement group she has presented me with a series of recommendations and more actions we can take now to try to improve student well-being. I expect to be in a position to announce news on this very shortly. Lorna will soon leave her post, and I very much welcome her successor, Clare Austick, and I look forward to working with her. Today, I want to pay tribute to Lorna for her advocacy and her work.
Covid-19 has had an impact on every one of us but we can all agree it has had a massive impact on young people, and perhaps this has not been discussed enough. They have suffered enormously. We can never endure another college year like this one. To be clear, intensive planning is under way in the third level sector and I will publish a plan and an update in June as to how we get our students safely back to campus at the start of the new academic year. We want our students back on campus in a safe way. This does not mean the online learning will cease entirely but we need to see a much bigger increase in on-campus attendance. The college experience is about more than a Zoom camera and students sitting in a boxroom or at the corner of the kitchen table of their mothers and fathers. It is about development, socialising and meeting people and we need to maximise on-site activity. We will be helped by vaccination and the roll-of rapid testing. I will be pursuing pilot programmes next month in NUI Galway, Trinity College Dublin, University College Cork and UCD and in student accommodation. Despite the pandemic, more than 6,000 students remain in on-campus student accommodation and as we roll out this study, accommodation will be a key part of where we will deploy rapid testing.
The Government does not oppose the Private Members' Bill. The Government welcomes the Bill. I will work with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage and Government colleagues and I will consult the USI and student accommodation providers to ensure that protections for student renters are enhanced.
My Department is less than a year old. We have an awful lot of work to do. It is a Department for third level education. This means not just higher education but also further, community and adult education. In less than a year, we have seen the roll-out of the free laptop scheme, the doubling of the student assistance fund, the reform of SUSI announced, the first increase in postgraduate grants and income thresholds in a decade, for the first time we have seen a new fund for educational disadvantage, the expansion of student Wi-Fi through eduroam, more college places, action plans on sexual harassment, CAO reform under way, a new apprenticeship action plan to try to end the elitist attitude we have when it comes to further education and a significant increase in funding for mental health and well-being. We have a great deal more to do and I am very aware of that.
Education can be and is the great leveller in society. We in the House often debate all that is good and bad about our higher education sector but we cannot leave behind those who study in further or community education. Through my work in the Department I have seen women living in direct provision travelling from Leitrim to Tallaght to access the incredible services of An Cosan. I have seen the women of SAOL in inner city Dublin recovering from addiction committed to, and advancing, their education. I have seen a once homeless man take up an apprenticeship in TU Dublin and he now has a job and a home. Excuse me for slightly moving off topic but I want to be clear, and the Oireachtas wants to be clear, that we must support students from all walks of life to reach their full potential.
Accommodation can be a barrier that many face but so too is the broader cost of education and the narrow and sometimes elitist attitude and understanding that as a society we can attach to educational options. We need to embrace multiple pathways. Now is a time of change. It is an exciting and challenging time full of opportunity for further and higher education.
I look forward to working with colleagues across the House on these issues.
I thank the USI for initiating this debate. Some good will come from this, in terms of additional protections for student renters, but much more must come from it in terms of better, more comprehensive provision of on-campus college-owned accommodation.