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Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 20 May 2021

Vol. 1007 No. 4

Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Disability Services

Michael Moynihan

Ceist:

80. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the measures in place or planned to improve access to further and higher education and training for learners with disabilities; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26970/21]

I want to ask the Minister what measures are in place and, more importantly, what is planned to improve the access of people with learning disabilities to higher education. It is very fundamental. It is important that there are planned improvements in the Department to improve accessibility to higher education for people with disabilities.

I am delighted the Deputy has raised this issue. I note his interest in it. This is a major priority for me and the entire Government. The Cabinet committee on education recently had a discussion about this very matter. I have undertaken to do two things between now and September, in conjunction with a number of Government colleagues, in particular the Ministers of State, Deputies Josepha Madigan and Anne Rabbitte.

The first thing I want to do is to examine the transition planning for students with disabilities when they leave school. I have been Minister for Health, as the Deputy knows. The discussion is often too narrow and concerns what health services a person will be provided with post school, rather than what skills or jobs he or she would like or what college he or she would like to go to. We are narrowing the conversation and sometimes almost suggesting that an educational journey must end when a person leaves school.

I am doing a piece of work with the Department of Education, the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, and my Department regarding what I am calling transition planning, career guidance and the like.

The second piece we are doing is a mapping exercise. There are some very good examples of good practice out there. Next week, for example, I will visit the Trinity Centre for People with Intellectual Disabilities. It is taking students with intellectual disabilities, and I have met them on a number of occasions already, straight from school and getting them into Trinity College, where they leave with an award and are linked in with employment. I met the National Learning Network in my constituency, which is also running a number of programmes through the Rehab Group. There are many examples of good practice which we are mapping out. By September I intend to report back to the Cabinet committee and, indeed, will be delighted to report back to the House on what more we can do.

We are developing a new national access plan. It is due to be developed this year. We have exceeded many targets in this area, but this is because the targets are under-ambitious. We are not measuring enough types of disability in that national access plan. We are out to consultation on it at the moment and will be developing the new national access plan during the course of the year. We need transition planning, a mapping out of what is there and then a scaling up of it.

It is most important that there is development and a pathway for people throughout the regions. I understand and have studied the Trinity programme, which is centralised in a major urban centre. For people with disabilities, either learning or physical, the difficulty is travelling. What needs to be done in the programme over the next couple of months is to assess the need within communities and how many people are falling between the cracks.

I have many experiences of people who go through second level education and because the system is not built to embrace them, encourage them and ensure they go on through education to the best of their ability, they fall through the cracks. It is necessary to look at those who have been left behind heretofore, as well as those in the future, to see how a network and realistic framework can be built throughout the higher education sector that will embrace people, and will look at their potential and what they can do. They have an enormous amount to contribute to society if we give them the enabler, which, of course, is the educational tools. It is necessary to look at the need, those that have fallen through the cracks, where they are now and how they can be rehabilitated into a newer system, and also plan for the future to make sure there is regional balance and supports for people.

I promise the Deputy we will do this. I met representatives from Down Syndrome Ireland recently. I talked to parents who said to me that, in some cases, not only are they not seeing their children progress when they leave school, which is the wish all parents have for their children, but are actually seeing them regress. What a horrific thing for parents to have to say, that at the time they see other children going to college, training and all these exciting things, they worry about their children going backwards in terms of their well-being, intellectual stimulation and the like.

What is good about the mapping exercise, and the reason I used Trinity as an example, is the question I ask every day - if we can do this in Trinity, why are we not doing it in every other university across the country? There are similar programmes in some. We will use the education and training board network, the colleges of further education and the higher education institutions. We will engage with disability stakeholders and link with the Department of Education because that transition piece is absolutely crucial. We will get this done. This is a major priority for me, my Department and the Government as a whole. We will also feed it into the development of the new national access plan.

Mental Health Services

Pauline Tully

Ceist:

81. Deputy Pauline Tully asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science further to Parliamentary Question No. 1484 of 24 March 2021, if his attention has been drawn to the shortfall in skilled mental health staff both here and internationally (details supplied) which is preventing the HSE from progressing the recruitment of clinicians for eating disorder teams; if he will raise this issue with the Higher Education Authority with a view to expanding the number of places available in this subject area in third-level institutions; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26944/21]

Has the Minister raised, or will he raise, the issue of the shortfall in skilled mental health staff with the Higher Education Authority with a view to expanding the number of places available in the subject area in third level institutions in this country?

I assure Deputy Tully my Department is committed to supporting the mental health of the population through the provision of graduates with the key competencies and skills required to be effective in the health workforce and to support a range of clinical teams, including the very important issue she highlights regarding supporting people with eating disorders.

Planning and decision-making for the expansion of those training places is a matter for the Department of Health, the HSE and the College of Psychiatrists of Ireland. My Department, the Higher Education Authority and the higher education institutions stand ready to help. We are committed to supporting the provision of graduates for the health service through undergraduate and postgraduate provision. We are actively engaging, as we speak, with the Department of Health on its health workforce planning needs. If it tells us what it believes is needed into the future and what role we can play in helping that, we stand ready to help. The Deputy has highlighted a very important and sensitive area where we clearly need to train more people. We are working hand in glove with the Department of Health and the HSE to try to assist in that regard.

I was concerned by information I received in reply to a parliamentary question I submitted recently regarding services for persons with eating disorders. The reply I received indicated the HSE had developed an approved model of care for eating disorders. It was launched in 2018 but, to date, out of the proposed eating disorder network of eight adult and eight child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, teams, only three teams have commenced recruitment and are delivering a service. Two are CAMHS and one is for adults, which is only three out of 16 in three years.

The HSE is provided with funding on a yearly basis. I am told funding is also available this year to progress the recruitment of clinicians, but the HSE has stated: "The availability of skilled staff is a significant issue in Mental Health services where demand outstrips supply in both the national and international contexts". I am told only three adult beds are available, all of which are based in community healthcare organisation, CHO, area 6. Very limited services are available for anyone else affected outside that CHO area.

It is recognised that most people can, and do, recover from eating disorders and the most effective treatment is in the community. The HSE-approved model of care for eating disorders sounds wonderful on paper, but it is based on establishing specialist regional teams with skilled clinicians that will collaborate with hospitals and GPs. As with every other medical condition, early intervention is key.

I fully agree with the Deputy. We are seeing a theme, and I say this in a constructive sense, in the parliamentary questions today, which is the delivery of public services. A number of Government strategies and the like commit to making improvements in very important areas, but will require us to produce more people to work and be trained in those areas.

I will say two things, honestly. First, there will obviously be a lead-in time for training. For example, for someone working in psychiatry we are talking about a study period of seven years. Second, from my Department's point of view, we are ready, willing and standing by ready to help. For any Department or State agency that wants to train more or says to us that it needs more graduates in certain areas, we are engaging very closely with the Department of Health's workforce planning unit. I will certainly feed back the Deputy's comments and the statistics she put on the record of the House into that process. I will be very happy to keep in touch with her on the matter.

I thank the Minister. I will point out there is a significant budget. Out of some €5.7 million made available, only €1.77 million has been invested. Something should be clearly earmarked at this stage. Money is not being used. The money is there, but all the money in the world is useless if there is no availability of trained personnel. It is a matter that should be actioned immediately to try to get the number of trained clinicians needed.

Unfortunately, some people die from eating disorders every year. Some 200,000 people in Ireland are affected at any one time, more females than males, and there are some 400 new cases a year, which is quite substantial. If people are given the care, support and intervention they need early, it will avoid them becoming chronic cases. Some 6% of chronic cases die. While the numbers might be low, these are deaths that could be very easily avoided.

I thank the Deputy for putting the spotlight on this very important issue. From my perspective as Minister, in the last three or four weeks I had a very good meeting with Bodywhys, the eating disorders organisation. We had a very important conversation about how we prepare our services and colleges for students returning to campus.

We will come to questions about that shortly. We have seen a very significant increase in mental health challenges, anxiety, stress and, no doubt, eating disorders as a result of the pandemic. We need to make sure there are additional supports in place for our students, as well as signposting for those supports, as they begin the new academic year. I am working with Bodywhys to identify how best to do that. I just wanted to mention that, given the issue the Deputy has highlighted today.

Irish Language

Éamon Ó Cuív

Ceist:

82. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science if he plans to provide ring-fenced funding for the provision of additional courses in third level colleges in cases in which the tuition would be through the medium of Irish to ensure there will be sufficient persons available with third level qualifications to meet the likely requirements of the Official Languages (Amendment) Bill 2019; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25445/21]

This question is very simple. Is it intended to provide ring-fenced funding to the Higher Education Authority, HEA, to ensure more courses are taught through the medium of Irish? I am not talking about courses teaching Irish but about courses provided at third level through the medium of Irish. There will be a demand for people who are qualified professionally in Irish or through the medium of Irish because of the Official Languages (Amendment) Bill 2019 Bill, which is going through the Oireachtas at the moment. What provision is being made with the Minister's Department to ensure we will have the graduates to provide these services?

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. On foot of this question, I have specifically asked my Department to engage with me directly and with the HEA on this matter. I assure the Deputy that my Department is committed to the implementation of the Official Languages Act and the provision of Irish language services to its customers. The Official Languages (Amendment) Bill 2019 is of high importance to Ireland and the life of the language in this country. It will ensure that Irish speakers can interact with the Government and access public services through a high standard of Irish.

There is already a broad range of courses available in Irish in higher education institutions. Under the advanced Irish language strategic initiative, funded by the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, there are eight courses available in five different institutions. There were a total of 73 students enrolled in these courses in 2019-20. Since 2015, 9,286 students have been enrolled in higher education courses on the Irish language or conducted through Irish. The number of students enrolled has increased by 19% since 2015.

In 2019-20, 127 courses were available with 1,799 students enrolled in courses on the Irish language or conducted through Irish, though the Deputy has differentiated between those two types of course. These courses encompass a broad range of topics, many of which would provide graduates with the qualifications to meet the likely requirements of the Official Languages (Amendment) Bill 2019. As is the case in planning for meeting any specific skill or education needs in the workforce, the approach must be guided by evaluation and analysis of the relevant need. As set out, there is currently significant provision of Irish language training. In supporting the achievement of the objectives of the Official Languages Act, my Department is open to considering the outcome of any evidence-based review that examines how this supply aligns with current and future demand. I would be very happy to engage bilaterally with the Deputy on this matter and to arrange for both of us to meet with the HEA.

I thank the Minister for his offer of engaging with me bilaterally and I will certainly take him up on it. I listened to his reply but we are a long way from where we need to be. I have a pragmatic and practical view of this. It is worth noting that NUI Galway, or UCG as it was at the time, was only kept in the 1920s to provide an Irish language university. Even into the 1960s most of the professors had the capability of teaching a wide range of subjects through Irish and there was quite a bit of educating through Irish going on. As the Minister knows, there has been a huge growth in Gaelscoileanna and Gaelcholáistí at second level but regression has happened over 40 years at third level, and even over the last ten years there has been regression in the scope and number of Irish language courses available. How many students are in third level education in the whole country? That should be measured against the figure of 73 the Minister gave. If he could tell me how many students are in third level education we would get an idea of how minuscule Irish language provision is.

The Deputy may have a fair idea of the answer to his question. It is always a good question to ask. There are around 200,000 students enrolled in higher education in Ireland now, which is up from 20,000 in 1971. I take the Deputy's point. However, I would also make the point that the figure of 73 does not tell the full story in any way, manner or means. I think he would agree with me on that. The Deputy is a passionate advocate for our official language. He makes a very interesting point about the development, progression and expansion of Irish language primary and secondary schools in recent decades and years. We have seen a very significant increase in the number of students enrolling in Irish language courses and courses provided through the Irish language at third level. I stated that the number of students enrolled in either higher education courses on the Irish language or conducted through Irish has increased by 19% but the Deputy is making a distinction between courses conducted through Irish and courses on the Irish language. I would be very happy to engage with him and to explore the matter of supply and demand from students leaving secondary school for accessing higher education in Irish. I will arrange that meeting with him in the coming weeks.

When we engage with this issue we will do so at three levels: courses through Irish; courses teaching the Irish language; and courses in professional Irish for certain occupations. For example, GPs, veterinary surgeons, nurses, speech therapists and all the other practical professions working in the Gaeltacht would need to know the language of their profession as well as a general competence in the language. I accept that the Minister is positive about this matter. Can he give me some indication of when we might engage bilaterally in order that we could move this forward? Are discussions taking place between his Department and the Department responsible for the Gaeltacht on this issue?. One of the fears I have from past experience is that we will bring in a law but will not be able to implement it without a total co-ordinated cross-Government approach.

I will not give the Deputy the date and the time of the meeting but I will certainly give him the month. I would be very happy to meet with him on this matter in the month of June. He should have his office contact mine today and I am sure we can identify a date and time, put that date in the diary for June and engage on the issue.

As regards specific engagements, I do not have all my Department's meeting schedules in front of me but I have no doubt that, as my response stated, my Department stands fully ready to discharge all our obligations under the Official Languages Act and the Official Languages (Amendment) Bill 2019. We will engage with all relevant Departments and agencies in that regard. We will substantially engage on this matter with my officials and the Higher Education Authority in June. I look forward to learning from the Deputy and working with him on this issue.

Third Level Fees

Rose Conway-Walsh

Ceist:

83. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the reason third level students here are required to pay the highest fees in the EU; his plans to address this inequality before the next academic year; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26990/21]

Why are third level students here required to pay the highest fees in the EU? What does the Minister plan to do to address that inequality before the next academic year? I am concerned that households which are paying up to 60% of their income on rent or mortgage payments do not have the money for these huge fees to send their children to third level education.

The Deputy's reference to the European Union only works because Northern Ireland is not currently in the European Union. A third level student in Northern Ireland today will pay £4,530 a year and will have to meet that cost in full through student loans. I just checked the conversion rate today and that means students in Northern Ireland pay fees of €5,247 every year. If Northern Ireland was still in the European Union the question would need to be altered. However, I do take very seriously the point the Deputy makes. My Department's statement of strategy, which I published on 8 March last, contains a commitment to put in place a sustainable funding model for higher education. This is essential in ensuring our higher education institutions can effectively meet high standards of quality and performance and achieve critical outcomes.

The Deputy will know that a comprehensive evaluation of the funding options was contained in the Cassells report. The all-party committee in the last Oireachtas asked for an independent economic evaluation of those options to be carried out, and the European Commission and independent expert consultants were involved in that regard. That review is being finalised and I expect to receive it in quarter 2 of this year. I will be happy to brief the Deputy on that review and debate it in this House.

This analysis highlighted the high level of fee support, amounting to more than €500 million annually, composed of funding for tuition of almost 140,000 eligible undergraduate students in higher education. More than 60,000 students now have all or part of their €3,000 student contributions paid. I worry sometimes when the message goes out about the student contribution fee that people considering accessing higher education may think that every student in the country must pay €3,000. Nearly half of our students now get their registration fees paid in full or in part under the SUSI grants scheme, and we are reviewing SUSI to ensure that more students are included.

The student registration fee, however, is very high and I would like to see it reduced. It must, however, be done as part of a sustainable funding model. What we will not be doing is introducing a student loan scheme, such as we have seen in other jurisdictions. I do not think that is a good model, and I expect to be able to outline to the House sustainable funding models for higher education later this year.

That was a bit of a mixed answer in a sense. It is not good enough to say that we are not as bad as others. We have the highest rate in this regard in the EU. In the last decade or so, according to the Irish Universities Association, IUA, we have seen the State embark on a sustained period of disinvestment from higher education. We have seen a withdrawal of the State from higher education. The third-level institutions are being given 50% less funding per student than in 2008. That is 72% less, if we account for inflation, and therefore very close to a reduction of three quarters in funding per student. The facts speak for themselves. The costs were pushed onto students and families, and fees were increased from €850 in 2008 to €3,000 today. It is an issue of equality of access. If we want an equal and fair education system, this barrier must be removed. Education is a public good, and it must be treated and invested in as such.

There is a great unfairness regarding the contribution fee for those leaving certificate students from last year who found out that their grades had been upgraded in the leaving certificate examinations they sat in November. They got their results and were again charged that contribution fee. I ask the Minister to address that point as well.

I tend not to be overly partisan and I do not mean to be overly argumentative, but I think the comparison I made with the situation in Northern Ireland is fair. I state that because Northern Ireland is a devolved administration. I have no political jurisdiction in Northern Ireland. The Scottish First Minister managed to abolish fees. When is Sinn Féin, in government in Northern Ireland, going to do the same? Where is the commitment to doing that? When is that going to be delivered? The Department of Education in the North had a Sinn Féin education minister for five of the last ten years. The Deputy expects students in Northern Ireland to pay €5,247 every year, and yet she is giving out to me in this House about €3,000.

This aspect goes to the point of consistency. I want to reduce the contribution fee in this country. I have to do it as part of a sustainable funding model for the reasons Deputy Conway-Walsh outlined. We want more students to get into higher education and we want to fund higher education properly. Let us look at what we have done in this jurisdiction. The pandemic employment payment, PUP, was made available to students, the student assistance fund was doubled, 15,000 free laptops were provided, there was a €250 top-up to the student grant scheme and the first increase in the postgraduate student supports in a decade. We have done all this in a Department that is less than one year old. We want to do much more in this area, but I think we have already shown a significant level of commitment to students. I accept that we have much more to do. My direct answer to the question, therefore, is that we intend to introduce a sustainable funding model for higher education in our country this year.

The Minister can dress it up all he likes, but we still have the highest fees here. We compare them with 2008. The Minister knows the situation in the North is one where we are dependent on a block grant. Please God, however, it will not be long until we have Irish unity and an all-island approach to education. I hope the Minister will agree that such an approach will serve all the students across this island, and will be one where we will not have fees and we will not be creating barriers for students going into third-level education.

I also need to ask the Minister about postgraduate fees. What has happened during the Covid-19 pandemic is absolutely extortionate. Students in some cases were sold an experience which was never delivered. I draw the Minister's attention, and I will send him this information separately, to the university in Limerick which promised study trips to students. The cost was worked into the charge, and those students were charged €1,600 for those trips. However, those students cannot get their money back, even though they have never had student visas. I will send the Minister a separate note on this issue, but we must really do something to address the financial barriers for students.

Deputy Conway-Walsh and I are both committed to working on an all-island basis. I am very much committed to working with the Deputy in that regard. Nicola Sturgeon, however, did not tell the people of Scotland that she had to wait for Scottish independence to do what she did concerning fees. Deputy Conway-Walsh is asking me a question, but I am wondering when Sinn Féin, in government in Northern Ireland, is going to address the issue of Irish people on the island of Ireland having to pay €5,247 a year, deferring that through student loans and then coming out of college heavily indebted. I am telling the House that what this Government will not do is introduce a system of student loans similar to what, unfortunately, Sinn Féin and others are presiding over on this island. We will not do that. Regarding the specific issue regarding Limerick, I would be very happy to engage with the Deputy and I know she is going to send me the information.

Further and Higher Education

David Stanton

Ceist:

84. Deputy David Stanton asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the progress made by students participating in local training initiatives; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26785/21]

This question, in the name of Deputy Stanton, seeks to ascertain the progress made since the inception of the local training initiatives, LTIs, that is, how they have developed, the extent to which trainees have gone on to better things and a general profile of how the system is operating.

I thank the Deputy for the question. Local training initiatives, LTIs, are training and work experience programmes carried out in partnership with community and voluntary organisations. They provide a basis for the 16 education and training boards, ETBs, to contract with community bodies to provide a service initiative in a locality where there are identified community needs. Training provision is intended to be sufficiently flexible to address the identified need and is typically six to 12 months in duration.

Due to the impact of Covid-19, the further education and training system quickly enabled provision to be moved online, where possible, in collaboration with Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, and wider stakeholders. On-site provision was impacted as a result of the restrictions during 2020 and into 2021. However, guidance was issued regarding supporting some face-to-face provision for time-critical, practical elements of programmes where on-site attendance was necessary, as well as for learners from marginalised backgrounds. The provision of LTIs has been part of the overall response, and as a result of that response, I confirm that in 2020, 87.3% of unique learners participating in LTIs fully or partially completed their courses. This is a slight increase on the completion rates in 2018 and 2019, where 84% and 86%, respectively, of learners fully or partially completed their courses.

My Department is committed to the continuing development of LTIs and the important services they provide to learners within communities.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. Will the number of participants, county-by-county, be made readily available? How many participants are involved now? Has the number fluctuated since the inception of LTIs? What reasons were given by those who did not complete their courses? Are there plans to improve, update or upgrade this scheme to attract the maximum number of participants with a view to graduation? In the same context, what did the participants do after completing their courses? Were they successful in moving on to third-level or to employment, for example?

I thank Deputy Durkan for his supplementary question. I do not have the county-by-county analysis which the Deputy is requesting, but we can ask for that and have the information furnished to him. Turning to the percentage of people who complete their courses, and despite the impact of Covid-19, as I mentioned in my initial reply, the numbers who completed or partially completed their courses were approximately 85% and upwards. That was consistent with previous years. Regarding why the remaining percentage of participants did not complete their courses, I do not have that information to hand.

We will furnish the Deputy with it.

In relation to the Deputy's query about further plans, the Deputy will be aware of the local training initiatives in his own constituency and I see them operating on the ground in my constituency. They are an organic initiative taken by our education and training boards, ETBs, in consultation with local community needs and desires. Where a need is identified, a local training initiative is introduced by the local ETB.

I will come back to the Minister of State in a moment.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. I ask whether it might be possible to identify the direction in which the participants go after completing a course. Do many of them come back for repeat courses? Can they come back for repeat courses?

In relation to the expansion, development and evolution of the courses for the participants, does the Minister of State have any proposals in mind with a view to maximising the benefits for the students and maximising financial returns following a cost-benefit analysis? To what degree are the Department and relevant authorities in contact with the communities in every constituency in the country with a view to expansion?

Our Department continually liaises with the higher education authority and the ETBs in relation to the workings and runnings of our local training initiatives. As I stated in my earlier contribution, these initiatives are a recognition of local needs and they are a response to local needs. In the main, local training providers are also used to deliver them, so they are local collaborations to addressing an issue.

SOLAS is the authority responsible for providing the funding for our local training initiatives. In 2021, the allocation for local training initiatives is €18,963,000, which is a significant sum of money. That is projected to enable 2,295 learners to partake in 228 local training initiatives right across the country.

Covid-19 Tests

Pádraig O'Sullivan

Ceist:

85. Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science if he will provide an update on the roll-out of rapid antigen testing in third-level colleges which will facilitate the return of students to on-campus learning; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26441/21]

I wish to ask the Minister for an update in relation to the rapid antigen testing roll-out across our universities. I understand that the Minister has been speaking about the issue for a number of months, as have I and a number of other Deputies. I am eager to see progress on the matter. I ask the Minister to provide us with details on the roll-out, looking ahead to September 2021.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter, as he has done on a number of occasions. I want to assure him that like the whole of Government, I am absolutely committed to a significant increase in on-site attendance in the further and higher education sectors in the next academic year. We all know the reasons why students have had to attend online this year. They have been well rehearsed and based on public health evidence. However, we are also aware that it cannot be repeated. It is not a sustainable situation to be in from an educational point of view, but more importantly, from a well-being perspective. Our young people, in particular, need to be back in college. It has been a hell of a long time since first-year students actually had on-site access to education, considering they left school - sixth year - in March 2020.

My Department has established a working group. It includes students, the unions, the representative bodies, NGOs and educational institutions. The working group will prepare a plan for the new academic year. It is due to meet again tomorrow to discuss the issue. I will publish a plan for the new semester in June.

Rapid antigen testing will form a part of that plan, but it is only one part of a package of measures that could support greater on-site activity. A rapid testing study - pilots, as it were - will be rolled out across four universities this month: TCD, UCC, UCD and NUI Galway. This will help us learn more about the potential role that rapid antigen can play in the further and higher education sector. More broadly, perhaps those lessons can also be shared with other sectors.

My Department is also participating in a HSE antigen testing pilot working group which is working with the HSE on the piloting of antigen testing in the education sector, including at third level. I am excited about antigen testing and eager to get the rapid testing pilots under way. They are starting this month. There is a commitment of funding of over €1 million from my Department. However, I want to be clear that rapid antigen testing is only one of the tools at our disposal. The return to campus this autumn is not dependent on such testing.

The adoption of detailed procedures and guidelines encompassing public health advice has played a central role in ensuring that essential and time-critical on-site activity could take place this year. We now want to expand that advice and to use the benefits of the vaccination programme to get our students and staff back to campus in September and October.

It is great to see that progress is being made. Hopefully, that will ensure that there is an on-site return of students in September. That is welcome. I welcome the fact that rapid antigen testing will just be part of that. I take what the Minister has said and I know that he has been a proponent of antigen testing for a long time. It is not a criticism of him specifically, but I believe that as a Government, we can do much more. The dogs on the street know the pros and cons of rapid antigen testing. It is not as accurate as PCR testing. We understand that. However, at the same time, looking at other developed countries, whether it is the UK or across Europe, there are hundreds of thousands of people who are subject to rapid testing every week. The use of it across the Continent is identifying hundreds of thousands of cases when people are at their most infectious state.

Given that come September the majority of adults here will be vaccinated, please God, in time for universities to return, if there is any delay in the vaccination roll-out it is most likely to affect third level students given that they are from younger age cohorts. Therefore, it is imperative that we roll out that rapid antigen testing as quickly as possible. While a pilot is welcome, we need to consider the roll-out of the testing in all third level institutions.

I am a major proponent of at least trying rapid testing. It would be weird if the Minister responsible for research and science was not, given that the chief scientific advisor to our country and to me and Science Foundation Ireland are so clear in relation to this matter. I simply think that we do not have anything to lose by trying it, particularly as a surveillance method. I very much take the points that our medical experts and doctors make. As the Deputy said, rapid testing is not PCR testing. No one is suggesting that it is. However, it is another tool to be used in the monitoring and surveillance of a virus that can rapidly change and evolve. We have seen benefits of its use in other jurisdictions.

Our intention is to roll out these pilots this month. That work is under way and the funding is in place. If there is a benefit to the testing, we will expand the programme. If there is not, what is the loss? That is the way we must approach science and research. We try things and learn from them. If they work, we expand them.

We are going to get the students back to college through a combination of potential rapid testing, the vaccination programme and also the application of good public health guidance and any resources that are needed to go alongside that. Those are the three legs of the stool. We are getting students and staff back to campus in the new academic year. It is essential. The Taoiseach could not have been clearer when he addressed the nation on this matter at the end of April.

The Joint Committee on Health heard a very good presentation yesterday on ventilation. Dr. Orla Hegarty was really excellent.

Question No. 86 replied to with Written Answers.

Further and Higher Education

Bernard Durkan

Ceist:

87. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the extent to which he has advanced his proposals for the maximisation of achievement and the attainment of various targets identifiable through the mission statement of his Department; the degree to which the efforts to date are in consort with already identified requirements in the academic, technological, scientific and innovative areas with a view to ensuring the broadest and highest educational opportunities in order to better compete nationally and internationally for job placements; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26955/21]

This question relates to a subject that I raised with the Minister previously in regard to the development of an adequate supply of highly qualified graduates in both the academic and technical areas, and meeting the market requirements in that regard.

I thank the Deputy for his question and for continually raising this most important matter.

Our further and higher education and research systems represent a critical national asset. That is how they need to be seen. They are a critical national asset which can support the future economic and societal success of our citizens. Increasingly, the battle to live in and create a country that has economic and social cohesion is going to be dependent on the talent and the ingenuity of our people and supporting and investing in that talent and ingenuity.

At the heart of the Department's strategy is the core objective of ensuring everyone, no matter who they are, where they come from, what their gender is or what their mum or dad did, can reach their full potential through education, whether as a school leaver or through lifelong learning. Education is no longer something that is just done for a set period of time until one reaches the age of 18 or 21. It is a journey that continues throughout life. We must get better at lifelong learning and investing in research and innovation.

In terms of the specific issues highlighted by the Deputy, our strategy sets out the Department's ambition to improve transitions to tertiary education for school leavers and to implement a new ten-year strategy to improve literacy, numeracy and digital skills. We live in a country in which one in six adults cannot read or struggles with reading and in which almost 50% of people lack basic digital skills. We have to get very serious about this. We must invest in upskilling and reskilling opportunities in areas of economic growth, such as green and digital skills. Under the leadership of the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, we have developed the new action plan on apprenticeships, and we will put in place a sustainable approach to higher education funding. We are undertaking a national engagement on research and science to create a new national strategy for Ireland. We are growing our international reach, as we want to position Ireland as a leader in higher education and research. I met the European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation about this yesterday. As regards regional development, we are supporting the establishment of technological universities to improve access to higher education and to act as anchors for regional and national innovation and growth. The idea that all roads must lead to Dublin needs to end as well.

I am satisfied that the mandate and mission of my Department are set out in the statement of strategy.

Can I further inquire as to whether, or the extent to which, the Minister and his Department continue to liaise with the various trades and professions with a view to attempting to identify the precise level of requirement into the future, and how will this compare with the experiences of other jurisdictions in the EU over the last 20 to 40 years, given their success in that area? To what extent does the Department continue to compare the requirement in the technical and academic areas to meet emerging and changing requirements in full, insofar as it can be done?

The short answer is that there are a couple of ways. We have the National Skills Council, which comprises leaders in the public service and industry leaders. That is the national umbrella structure through which we identify and pursue the skills needs of the country. Crucially, we have regional skills fora, and the Minister of State and I have been meeting with them across the country, which bring together the education providers, such as the college, university and the ETB, and the local employers to discuss what is required in the region, for example, Kildare, to ensure they are future-proofing the needs of the regional and local economies. Under the apprenticeship action plan we have put in place specific structures to engage with employers. Frankly, there cannot be apprenticeships without employers. An employer is needed to take on an apprentice. We have listened to their feedback and there are a number of measures in the action plan that will make it easier for businesses to take on more apprenticeships. In addition, we have put it to the public sector to not just lecture the private sector, but to do its bit as well. On the technical versus academic piece, some of the things in the plan regarding CAO reform and showing students all their options and all the different career pathways will also be key.

Has the Department, in its continued liaison with the various authorities throughout the country, observed any particular requirements specific to geographical areas that occur in one more than another? Is the Minister conscious of the fact that in the future we may need to diversify to a greater extent than in the past arising from, for example, Brexit and the impact of Covid-19? Are actions being put in place or targets being set in that regard? What are the Minister's observations from the ongoing assessment to which he referred?

Yes, even in a small country like Ireland there are differences in the regions. When I met the south east regional skills forum, it referred to the fact that it had engineering jobs that needed to be filled. What does one do? One brings together the local college, local ETB and local employers to find how to provide more courses in the region for that. I can provide the Deputy with more detail, but there are differences from region to region even in a small country.

The Deputy's point about diversification and the changing world with Brexit, Covid, technology and climate is key. The idea that a person will come out of school and will have a certain set of skills when he or she goes to college and will do the same job with the same set of skills for the rest of his or her life is likely to go out with the dinosaurs. Increasingly, we will need to provide employees who cannot pack their bags and go to university for four years with access to flexible modules of education to upskill. We are driving that principally through the Skillnet Ireland organisation, which my Department funds.

Question No. 88 replied to with Written Answers.

Further and Higher Education

Rose Conway-Walsh

Ceist:

89. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science his plans to improve the working conditions for PhD researchers; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26992/21]

What are the Minister's plans to improve the working conditions for PhD students? PhD researchers need to have their work recognised. They deserve rights and conditions that reflect the contribution they make to education and research. The recently published general scheme of the Higher Education Authority Bill contains no mention of a role for the reformed HEA to promote better conditions for early career researchers.

That is not an oversight. The Bill relates specifically to how the Higher Education Authority will interact with the institutions, but I am happy to examine that with the Deputy in the pre-legislative scrutiny.

Postgraduate programmes comprise a range of elements designed to further the training and development of students. PhD students, in addition to conducting research, participate in other activities, including teaching, to develop generic and transferable skills. A range of activities can be included under the teaching contribution, such as taking tutorial groups, demonstrating at practical classes, co-supervising undergraduate projects and student mentoring. Officials from my Department and the HEA, at my request, have been collecting information from all the higher education institutions on these practices, because the Deputy raised this with me previously, as well as information from a number of research funding agencies on any terms and conditions they specify when allocating grants to PhD students.

The Higher Education Authority and Quality Qualifications Ireland co-chair the national advisory forum for Ireland's framework for doctoral education. Membership of the forum also comprises representatives of the higher education institutions, research funding organisations, representatives of the university and the technological sector, student representatives and the Department. Examination of relevant issues raised in respect of PhD students arising from the information obtained on current practices will be undertaken by a sub-group of the advisory forum, so we are collating the information and asking the advisory forum to consider it. We are specifically asking it to look at what happens in Ireland in light of international best practice in this area - how we benchmark what we do with others. The outcome of this analysis will help guide and inform consideration of next steps and any policy decisions I may make on this issue. In parallel with this process, I am continuing to meet research funders, researchers, higher education institutions and other stakeholders to explore the potential for improvements.

My Department at my request, and indeed somewhat at the Deputy's request because she has raised this previously, is currently collating the information. We will send it to the national advisory group which will advise on any further actions that need to be taken and will benchmark it against international best practice.

I welcome that and I thank the Minister for it. I also welcome the announcement of the additional investment from the Irish Research Council. The postgraduate stipend is increased from €16,000 to €18,500 per annum and funding for postdoctoral researchers also increased. However, the €18,500 is still below the minimum wage. The Irish Research Council does not mean all PhD researchers.

Apprentices get contracts of employment and are members of unions. They are paid a percentage share of a fully qualified tradesperson's wage which increases each year as they gain experience. There is something to learn from that. The PhD researchers have no contract of employment, no collective bargaining rights, no sick leave, no maternity leave or no paternity pay. I ask the Minister to take all those matters into consideration in his review. Low-paid, precarious work has spread rapidly in higher education since Fine Gael came into power in 2011. That is not Sinn Féin's fault.

The Deputy got me back for my comments on the last question. On the issue of precarious employment, I addressed the Irish Federation of University Teachers annual conference virtually last week and I specifically highlighted how we intend to address precarious employment as part of our discussion on sustainable funding. As we invest more in higher education, and it is an investment, it is only right and proper that the State expects more in terms of decent employment contracts being issued. That is a fair point.

With regard to the actions I will take in this regard, I will feed in the suggestions the Deputy has made to that process. We will have the additional information that is being collected from the higher education institutions, so we will have a full picture of what is happening. I do not mean this in a dismissive way, but we have heard individual examples and anecdotes, and they are important, but it is important that we map out and have a good picture of everything that is happening. A sub-group of the national advisory forum will consider, analyse, internationally benchmark and will report back to me. I will be happy to share the findings with the Deputy and actively engage with her on them.

I thank the Minister for that. The situation with precarious working conditions for those working in third level institutions is unacceptable on two fronts. First, there is the economic disadvantage and financial stress in which it puts people.

It also gives the message to our students that it is okay to work in an environment where one is treated like that. We must stop it.

Will the Minister, as a part of the review, put researchers and PhD students with disabilities front and centre? I ask him to consult them and make sure their voices are heard within that review because they face extra challenges. They have an enormous contribution to make and we must enable them to make that contribution and ensure their rights are upheld.

I certainly will do that and I fully agree with the Deputy in that regard. I have had some engagement with PhD researchers with disabilities and I would be happy to intensify that contact and do more. I thank the Deputy for acknowledging the fact that we have increased the stipend. That is a signal of intent and wanting to do more on research, which requires more researchers and an attractive and decent place for researchers to carry out their work. We have also increased SUSI supports for postgraduate students. This is the general direction of travel that we want to take. I am genuinely eager to see the outcome of the work of the subgroup because I accept more needs to be done in this area. I also accept that it is a fine line between fulfilling the educational importance of these programmes and the differentiation between education and work. At the same time, we should strive to be best in class in this area. We want Ireland to be a leader in research and that involves investing in our best and brightest. Any recommendations for how we can make further improvements will certainly be acted upon and taken seriously by me.

Institutes of Technology

Thomas Pringle

Ceist:

90. Deputy Thomas Pringle asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the plans in place for development at Letterkenny Institute of Technology, LYIT; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26714/21]

I will take Deputy Pringle's question and, with the Minister's permission, I will incorporate aspects of a question of my own on the same issue. Deputy Pringle asked about the plans in place for the development of LYIT. That is, obviously, in the context of the submission from the Connacht-Ulster Alliance, which includes Sligo IT, the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, GMIT, and LYIT. I ask the Minister for the most up-to-date timeline as to what is happening.

I thank the Deputy and acknowledge her support and advocacy for the importance of a technological university for the north west, an issue that is also of concern to Deputy Conway-Walsh. I need to be careful in what I say because I understand a ballot of the Teachers' Union of Ireland, TUI, is about to conclude but, without pre-empting any outcomes of any ballots, I am hopeful that I will shortly receive an application for a technological university for the north west, the Connacht-Ulster Alliance application, in the coming days. A massive amount of work has been undertaken. If and when I receive the application, I will publicly acknowledge receipt of it. I would then propose to meet all Oireachtas Members from the region within the coming days on an all-party basis. Let us wait and see when the application comes in. It is up to the consortium to submit the application. When it arrives, I will note that publicly and will then move, in the following days, to meet with Oireachtas Members from the region to update them on that and the next steps. A very specific and prescribed number of actions must be taken when an application comes in. Ultimately, the Minister of the day receives the application and an international, independent panel is appointed to assess the application. We have a template now because we have gone through this process a few times. That is the current and most up-to-date position.

To respond specifically to Deputy Pringle's inquiries regarding Letterkenny, I am pleased to inform him that there are three Exchequer-funded projects in the pipeline which will significantly enhance higher education infrastructure at the LYIT and support the development of the planned new technological university for the west and north west. Refurbishment and upgrade works to the main LYIT building on the Killybegs campus have been approved and are under way, with phases 1 and 2 of the project complete. Phase 3 is expected to be on-site early this summer. The upgrade work will support the long-term sustainability of the Killybegs campus. A major new library, ICT and education building is also planned. LYIT was one of the eight institutions approved in 2020 to progress a project under the energy efficiency and decarbonisation pathfinder programme.

I thank the Minister. That was a lot of information in two minutes. As he said, we are in the final stages. The TUI is voting at the moment and nobody wants to pre-empt the result of that ballot but we can all be hopeful that we will have white smoke, perhaps by tonight or tomorrow morning. It is my understanding that the three governing bodies will meet tomorrow to submit their application, if we have that approval from the TUI.

I will ask the Minister a question in the context of St. Angela's College. Assuming the application from the alliance goes ahead, we have a memorandum of understanding between Sligo IT and St. Angela's. Can the Minister give any indication as to when he would be in a position to give his approval to the incorporation of St. Angela's into Sligo IT? Part of the submission of the Connacht-Ulster Alliance includes the possibility of St. Angela's merging with Sligo IT.

I am certainly not being coy about the timeline for the application and what the Deputy has said tallies with what I know but I want to be respectful of the process. As soon as we receive the application, we will move quickly.

I have had some excellent meetings with representatives of St. Angela's, including the president, and with the president of Sligo IT and others. I welcome the close work that is going on between the two institutions. Quite frankly, I think St. Angela's has been left hanging for far too long. It is important to me that St. Angela's is incorporated. It is clear to me that there are synergies between Sligo IT and St. Angela's. The specific timeline for when that happens is a matter for the institutions and, ultimately, the technological university. I have provided a lot of assistance and engagement with officials. I would like to see it happen. Whether it can happen before the technological university is designated is a matter for those on the ground. I have no difficulty if it does and, in fact, would very much welcome it if it can happen. As I have said previously, nothing is going to stop or delay the advancement of the technological university and I know that is a view also shared by St. Angela's. I am happy for them to get on with it, quite frankly, and I know they are working extremely hard on that matter.

I thank the Minister for saying there will be a cross-party approach that will include all Oireachtas Members from the area. Everyone is on the same footing here. Everybody recognises the considerable potential that the Connacht-Ulster Alliance could realise for the region.

The Minister said that he cannot be clear on the timelines with regard to St. Angela's, and I understand that. However, it is positive to hear that the Minister feels that St. Angela's has a role to play and can be a part of the technological university.

Without wanting to raise any concerns, I have one final issue to address. If we have a situation where not all three campuses vote in favour of the new technological university, is it possible that two can go ahead with a submission? Has this happened in the south east? I am not sure about that. I am not asking the Minister what will happen, I am simply asking what is possible.

I will be careful in answering that question because of the sensitivities involved. Staff engagement and buy-in to these processes are vital. The Deputy is factually correct that, in the south east, the TUI ballot did not pass in Waterford but did pass in Carlow and the application was still submitted by the consortium. That would, ultimately, be a decision for the governing authorities as it relates to any technological university. That is an open question. We will certainly proceed on a cross-party basis. It has been key to the success and delivery of these projects and I worked extremely closely with people throughout the country on a cross-party basis and I thank the Deputy for taking that approach in the north west.

I thank the Minister for his commitment to working on a cross-party basis on this issue. I highlight the potential around GMIT in Castlebar, next door to Mayo University Hospital. We talked earlier about the need to train more medical students, linking up with Magee campus, the New Decade, New Approach agreement, the shared island unit and the programme for Government, and the potential for training medical students across the west and the north west.

I am committed to the GMIT campus in Castlebar. Under this plan for a technological university for the north west, Castlebar will become a university town and that is a massive prize for the people of Castlebar and County Mayo. It will be important for regional growth and development, and perhaps also for keeping young people in the regions.

The Government has given a commitment, under New Decade, New Approach, to the Magee campus, as has the British Government. Being honest, we now need concrete proposals as to what that will look like. I have had some engagements with Magee, Ulster University, the British ambassador and the Minister for Foreign Affairs. Those engagements are continuing and as soon as the Covid-19 scenario allows, I look forward to visiting the North and the north west and talking about those synergies.

We have seen how it can work in so many areas. It needs to work in higher education too.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.
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