Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Research and Development

Denis Naughten


6. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the steps he will take to improve the interface between the wider research community and the Houses of the Oireachtas; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [49175/21]

While there are plenty of doctors in our Department of Health, there are few technical postgraduates throughout our public service. I hope the one thing we have learned from the Covid-19 pandemic is a greater appreciation of the need for independent scientific advice within our public service and in the Houses of the Oireachtas. The most immediate and urgent need is for advice to allow Dáil Éireann to properly consider the proposed carbon budget and ensure that it is appropriately scrutinised.

I thank the Deputy for his question and for raising an important issue. Strengthening the engagement and dialogue between researchers and wider society is critical. We saw that during the pandemic when we had expert advice. We did well, largely, when we followed expert advice during the pandemic and when we did not, it did not go as well, to put it mildly. I see a core mission of my Department as trying to embed expert advice within policymaking.

For that reason, my Department is trying to create a dialogue across the country with all stakeholders, including with our public representatives and also wider civic society, through the Creating our Future initiative. This is an opportunity to have a genuine national conversation. That phrase can be a bit hackneyed but I believe in it concerning this endeavour, where we get out there and engage. Researchers will not just talk to researchers, but our experts will get out and talk to communities about the role of research, what role it can play and what role it should play. This involves asking the people what they want our researchers and scientists to work on and which opportunities and challenges to address using public funds. We have a roadshow travelling around the country and a website where people can submit their ideas for topics that they think researchers should engage with.

We have had a great response, including among elected representatives. I take this opportunity to thank the Deputy for the work he is doing for that initiative as the chair of the informal cross-party group on science and technology. I wonder whether that informal group could have a broader role in future, beyond the Creating Our Future initiative. The group gives Members, as well as staff, the opportunity to learn more about the campaign and to begin to engage with some of these matters.

Other valuable work is also undertaken by my Department's agencies to support engagement with the Oireachtas. The Irish Research Council, IRC, runs a shadowing scheme in which researchers may shadow a Deputy or Senator with responsibilities in an area related to their research. Science Foundation Ireland, SFI, also works with the Oireachtas Library and Research Service to create opportunities for engagement with researchers. The recent public service fellowship pilot programme placed researchers within Oireachtas teams, working side by side with colleagues on critical areas such as climate change and the economic, social and ethical implications of technological innovation. I welcome the views of the Deputy and other colleagues regarding what can be done to strengthen further these sorts of engagements because I see great value in them.

We all accept that the field of science and technology is playing an increasing role in our lives, homes, work and even leisure activities. Yet, there remains a poor public awareness of science and opportunities in that regard in Ireland for our people and our economy. I accept that the Creating Our Future initiative is a positive development in addressing that aspect. We also need a forum, however, to enable the facts concerning scientific development to be brought into the public domain and to improve public understanding of complex issues such as Covid-19, vaccinations, methane and climate science and wireless communications technology. One of the major issues with which we as a Parliament must now grapple is the ownership of publicly-sourced data, especially medical data. There is significant potential within our health service in that regard. While these matters are being dealt with in a piecemeal manner by sectoral committees, there is no central forum imbued with the skill set to tease out issues such as these with the researchers, the specialists and expert technical advice in these areas.

This is one of those questions that gets me thinking in this space. I am approaching this engagement on that basis. I agree with the Deputy regarding the poor public awareness of science and research. That extends even to our science and research sector, what it is doing daily and how vital it is. I make the point repeatedly in government that there is not a challenge that we face as a country or globally, which does not require science, technology or innovation to resolve it. My Department has a co-ordinating role. It is also important, however, that we embed relevant expertise in line Departments as they are developing roles in this area as well.

One of the issues that I must decide on shortly and that I am considering now, and I am happy to share this with the Deputy, is the role of the Chief Scientific Adviser. The Chief Scientific Adviser and the director of the SFI are one and the same now. I am not talking about the individual concerned but about the role. One of the things I must think about is how we want the position of Chief Scientific adviser to sit within our public policymaking infrastructure and how we want to support that person and make her or him available to engage in public discourse and public policymaking. I welcome any suggestions from the Deputy in that regard.

I am glad the Minister brought up the issue of Government. During my term in government, I had to deal with a vast array of technical issues right across government. We were far too reliant on external advice. While external advice is important, it must complement the expertise available within government itself. Right across our public service, we need focused incentives for those within the public service to upskill and to attract those with such skills into Departments so that we can provide a better understanding of the technical advice presented. Internships for researchers, such as those mentioned by the Minister, can give them a better understanding of how government works and how decisions are made. Most important, however, is the need to get them to acknowledge that the advice available is the best advice available at that time and not to be waiting for the perfect solution to appear in an academic paper in five years.

We have an excellent Civil Service, but it must be complemented by expert advice or, as the Deputy suggested, by providing opportunities for people within the Civil Service to gain that expertise. Ministers can be generalists, but we are reliant on the expert advice that we receive. The more we can embed that within public policymaking the better it will be.

I will not have time to read this full list, but I will send it to the Deputy, of some good examples of where SFI's public research fellows are carrying out work on behalf of a range of Departments. Examples include my Department undertaking a project on the development of a standardised classification scheme for public investment in research with Trinity College Dublin. The Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, the Houses of the Oireachtas, which has many projects, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, FSAI, are also undertaking such projects. Therefore, we are making our agencies available to Departments. My message to everybody involved in public policy is that that is a service we are willing to provide and happy to resource further. I would love to have a conversation in more detail, perhaps in a committee, regarding how we might embed that expert advice in public policymaking because there is no doubt that it will lead to better public policies.

Third Level Education

Cathal Crowe


7. Deputy Cathal Crowe asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the way the University of Limerick campus will expand in future years into County Clare. [49629/21]

I begin by joining others in congratulating the Minister and his wife, Caoimhe, on the birth of their son, Cillian. I am sure that it is a busy and sleepless time for him and I wish him all the very best.

My question is to ask the Minister or the Minister of State to provide an overview of how the University of Limerick, UL, will expand into County Clare in the years to come.

I thank the Deputy for his kind words and for his important question regarding third-level education in County Clare and the mid-west region. We have another question in this regard later, and it is an exciting time for the county from the perspective of third-level education. It is an exciting time for the mid-west. My answer to this question encompasses UL, but there is also the development of the technological university in the city. Ennis is now a university town and Clare is now a university county. The benefits from that development will be significant and will impact not just education but also regional development and the economy. I look forward to working with the Deputy and other Oireachtas colleagues in that regard.

As part of its future campus planning, and in particular a further deepening of engagement with industry, UL has indicated that it is supporting an application for the designation of lands on the County Clare side of its campus as an economic strategic development zone, SDZ. This is still at an early stage. It is understood by my Department that a submission for an SDZ status is in preparation and will be submitted to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage. UL has indicated to my Department that it sees potential for new and innovative models of teaching and learning through designation of an SDZ alongside its current campus. This would include close partnering between the university and industry in the delivery of higher education, and opportunities for students to be immersed in industry practice from the beginning of their studies. It could also offer opportunities for new collaborations in research and innovation.

I should say my Department does not have any direct involvement in these plans. They are currently being progressed by UL as an autonomous institution in conjunction with the relevant local authority and other partners. However, UL has undertaken to keep me updated on developments so I can keep the House updated on developments.

More broadly though, I very much welcome the ideal of our universities looking to increase and intensify industry collaboration. It is important that our universities work actively with industry in the regions to meet current and future skills needs. Even in a relatively small country such as Ireland, the skills needs can vary from industry to industry. Instinctively, the idea of a university looking to expand so it can more greatly collaborate with industry is a good thing. UL will submit its SDZ application to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage shortly.

I thank the Minister. It is now 17 years since I graduated from UL. At the time I went there it was very much a Limerick campus. It was in Castletroy but its footprint has extended into County Clare. It is widely believed the campus is now at saturation point on the Limerick side. It has very little room to expand unless it starts knocking and rebuilding some of its facilities or building on playing pitches. Thus the future of the campus is on the County Clare side. Clare County Council, in co-operation with other bodies in the mid-west, is putting forward a proposal for an SDZ. This is key for realising the full capacity of the campus and also creating research and innovation hubs around the curtilage of the campus. It is essential this happens.

There is also room to develop a paramedic training facility in Ennis. There is a fabulous facility, which the Minister's colleague, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, opened just a few weeks ago. It is state-of-the-art. We should not send UL graduates to Liverpool to complete practical training that can be done in the mid-west. We could have graduates coming out of the mid-west with paramedic training. Imagine what that would mean for our health service.

I thank the Deputy for his enthusiasm for the potential expansion of UL into County Clare. When we are discussing UL, I take this opportunity to put on the record of the House my congratulations for Professor Kerstin Mey on her formal appointment as president of UL. When she was made interim president she was the first female president of an Irish university. She is now the full-time, fully-appointed president of UL and I wish her all the very best.

UL has indicated that request for SDZ designation is expected to be submitted later this year. I do not have a more specific timeframe than that but the university is intending to submit it to our colleague, the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, later this year. In many ways, his Department will have a more direct role than mine. We have no role in the SDZ. I again underline that a submission for SDZ designation has not yet been finalised but my Department is supportive of collaboration between industry and higher education, especially in the context of driving regional economic development. I look forward to further briefing from UL as the proposal is advanced. We will of course consider any proposal brought to Government by the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien.

UL has produced thousands of aviation graduates. The same can be said for Limerick Institute of Technology, now part of the Technological University of the Shannon: Midlands Midwest. It would be remiss of me to not mention that this morning as I will shortly head out to meet the chief executives of Lufthansa Technik and of Atlantic Aviation Group. Yesterday we had a double-edged sword announcement in the region. For many years, 485 people have been employed by Lufthansa Technik. They have been hugely hampered and devastated by the Covid pandemic. We got the good news yesterday that 300 jobs will be saved. Those jobs have been secured but 185 are going to be lost. These people have been trained in the region. These are highly-skilled jobs. These people may not fall immediately within the remit of the Minister but he and the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment must do everything to give these people a pathway to new employment. There is great uncertainty hanging over their heads. As we come out of Covid and most sectors recover, they cannot see a recovery. There were 300 jobs saved and 185 are to be lost. I implore the Minister to step into the breach for the people with that skill set in the region and come up with alternative employment in the quickest time.

Hearing of any job loss is devastating for the individual, for their family and for the community. I can certainly tell the Deputy the infrastructure of my Department and of the State will not be found wanting in terms of doing all we can to help people reskill, retrain and access employment. Some of that falls to myself and some to the Minister for Social Protection, with respect to the supports available through her Department, as well as the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment. I am happy to engage with the Deputy and his constituents on any assistance that can be provided by the education and training boards, the new technological university in the region and UL in this matter.

Apprenticeship Programmes

David Stanton


8. Deputy David Stanton asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science his plans to further expand the range of apprenticeship schemes in Ireland; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [49751/21]

I tabled this question to give the Minister an opportunity to explain the further expansion of apprenticeships across the country. We have seen many new ones coming on stream in the past number of years. What new ones are being planned? Are there strategies in place to retain apprentices in position once they are employed?

I thank the Deputy. We are committed to significant expansion in apprenticeships to secure the targets set out in the apprenticeship action plan, given the key role of apprenticeship in meeting key workforce needs.

Apprenticeship is a demand-driven educational and training programme, which aims to develop the skills of an apprentice in order to meet the needs of industry and the labour market. The development of new apprenticeships is employer-led, with consortia comprising employer groups and educational providers coming together to identify a skills need and appropriate apprenticeship response in their sector. A defined process, structure, and financial incentive, through the apprenticeship incentivisation scheme, for employers to become engaged in the apprenticeship process is in place. It is open to any industry that wishes to explore options for developing an apprenticeship to bring a proposal forward. The SOLAS guidance document for submitting an initial proposal for a new national apprenticeship, together with its handbook on developing a national apprenticeship, provide an overview of the key features of new apprenticeships, including sectoral engagement and collaboration among enterprises and other stakeholders in the relevant industry. These publications are available on apprenticeship.ie.

There are 62 national apprenticeship programmes currently in operation. This includes 25 craft apprenticeships and 37 programmes introduced since 2016. There are 17 additional new apprenticeship programmes currently in development in sectors such as agriculture, ICT, hospitality, construction, engineering, and commercial driving, with two of these currently scheduled to launch in this year, namely, transport operations and commercial driving, and wind turbine maintenance. In addition, a number of other potential apprenticeships are at an exploratory stage in sectors such as health, beauty, environmental and engineering.

The establishment of the national apprenticeship office is planned by the end of the year to bring a dedicated focus and resources to the programme of work set out in the action plan for apprenticeship aimed at expanding the role played by apprenticeships within the education and training system.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. It is great to see more apprenticeship schemes coming on stream and so many in place. One question that arises is that once the apprentices are in position, why are so many leaving? This is true in the construction area especially, where there is such a significant need for them. I have had a number of responses to parliamentary questions and thank the Minister of State for the information supplied. However, it appears that in some instances one fifth or more of them are leaving. Has any detailed analysis or research been carried out as to why this is happening and whether anything can be done to ensure applicants make the correct choice in the first place and once in there, that they are retained?

As I pointed out to the Deputy, the new national apprenticeship office is to be established and a director appointed this month. That office emerges from the apprenticeship action plan and will act as an umbrella and overseer of the entire apprenticeship landscape. Allied to the national apprenticeship office will be the national apprenticeship alliance, a stakeholder group which will support that office with respect to its future direction and will also support it in terms of the demands of our current apprenticeship offering. It will also deal with issues of dropout that the Deputy raised. Through the Department we have increased the funding and resourcing going into our apprenticeship offering across the apprenticeship landscape and we intend to do that going forward because we recognise promoting apprenticeships and mainstreaming them into our FET sector is hugely important. All those actions which are in the apprenticeship action plan will hopefully address the key concern the Deputy has raised.

I thank the Minister of State for that. Is he concerned at the level of dropout, which is in some instances one in five, or even greater?

Of course it is a concern. The level of dropout from any course is a concern but it is not exclusive to apprenticeships. There are turnover and different dropout rates throughout our third-level sector.

That is just one of the challenges. It is about choice as well. Sometimes, people make a career choice which is not suited to them or does not work out. Our job is to identify the apprenticeships and gaps in the labour force, to identify the skills needs and to work with the employers and consortia on that. We also have to work with the apprentices. We do that by way of trying to support them, especially in their off-the-job training.

I ask the Minister of State for a clarification on the 17 new apprenticeships. There is a wide range from health to beauty and wind energy. Can he clarify whether such a possibility is being considered for childcare, where work placement is in place for people who are training and is supervised? While people are doing those placements, they are fully supervised and they are not counted within staff ratios. There is great difficulty in the childcare sector recruiting and retaining people. Has consideration being given to offering an apprenticeship in childcare or does that opportunity exist?

Some 17 apprenticeships are in development and this will be of interest to Deputy Stanton as well. A further 19 apprenticeships are at an exploratory stage. They are wide and varied and include dental technician, accountancy, artificial intelligence, barbering, beauty and engineering. Deputy Moynihan specifically referenced childcare. The apprenticeship council, SOLAS, and staff at my Department have met and communicated with representatives of the early childcare sector on a number of occasions between 2019 and 2021, to outline the development processes of apprenticeship programmes. To develop an apprenticeship programme, there is a detailed process. It is available on apprenticeship.ie to look at in detail. A workforce development plan for the early learning and care, school-age childcare and childminding sector is being developed by the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, in consultation with the Department of Education. It is being looked at and if those groups come together and talk to our Department and SOLAS, that can be explored further.

Question No. 9 replied to with Written Answers.

Disability Services

Jennifer Carroll MacNeill


10. Deputy Jennifer Carroll MacNeill asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the plans that are in place by his Department to expand third level programmes for persons with intellectual disabilities, such as a facility (details supplied) across the country; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [49762/21]

I would like to ask the Minister about the opportunity to roll out programmes in higher education for students with intellectual disability, recognising only 1% of people with intellectual disability have the opportunity to go university and I would like a statement on progress.

I thank the Deputy for all her work, interest and engagement with me on this issue. I am pleased the allocation we secured yesterday in the budget for the national access plan specifically references students with intellectual disabilities. We have made a great deal of progress, as a country, and we have more to do on a number of disabilities. Based on the figures the Deputy gave, we have a long way to go on intellectual disabilities. I am determined to make progress on this. Our new national access plan will, for the first time, include the issue of intellectual disabilities, as well as a broader range of disabilities.

Inclusion is one of the core strategic goals for my Department and my ambition is to ensure we provide supports and opportunities for learning for all. This means responding to the needs of different learners, including vulnerable learners, people who are more marginalised and those who have special and additional needs. This means assisting people in accessing and progressing through higher and further education and training.

For higher education, these aims will be reflected in our new national access and inclusion plan. This will be published in the coming months and I hope by the end of the year. I have recently announced five performance funding awards totalling €5 million in the higher education sector. This included €1 million in funding for UCC's inclusive education pathways for students with intellectual disabilities. This award was based on innovative programmes that support inclusive education pathways for students with intellectual disabilities. I have referenced the €5 million we secured yesterday as part of budget 2022. That specifically relates to a dedicated pilot called a pathways project in higher education for students with intellectual disabilities, which is important.

We have made significant progress at primary and secondary level. I will make sure the cliff edge has not just moved to the end of secondary level by working with the Ministers of State, Deputies Madigan and Rabbitte, and the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, to put in place a pathway project to help students with intellectual disabilities transition from second level education on to further or higher education. We have been engaging extensively with learners, their advocates and a number of representative bodies. My intention is to hold a round table with learners, stakeholders and institutions to hear their views on how best to use this funding for pathway projects. I will be doing that in the coming weeks. I also acknowledge the good work that has been going on in the Trinity Centre for People with Intellectual Disabilities. I thank the Deputy for introducing me to that work. It is a model of best practice. I am also examining how we can expand that and encourage other institutions to do likewise, because, what is going on there is quite magical.

I thank the Minister for meeting representatives of the Trinity Centre for People with Intellectual Disabilities. University is not for every person, with or without an intellectual disability, but it should be an option. It gives dignity to have a student card, be able to be on the Frisbee team, or whatever it is a young person chooses, and be properly included and given the confidence. I met a young man who is a graduate of the centre last weekend and now has a full-time permanent position in a commercial firm in Dublin. He has worked through the pandemic, in his own way, and is now a board member of Inclusion Ireland as a self-advocate. Those programmes give confidence because of the inclusion and dignity they afford to young people. They give them the opportunity, instead of assuming it is okay to send them to day care or something of that nature, to work in commercial companies, have a lanyard, pay tax, have the dignity of grumbling on a Monday morning getting on a bus the same as everybody else. That is real inclusion. We must conceive intellectual disability in the same way as everything else. I thank the Minister for his work so far and ask him to respond to those points.

The Deputy is 100% correct. I recall from my time in the Department of Health, there would be a discussion on school leavers every year. I found it slightly insulting, because the discussion was on what we would do about a day care or a respite place. These are very important provisions, on which we need to do more, but they are not the totality. At the time children were talking to their parents about what they would do next, we seemed to think our only responsibility, as a State, was to provide the health service piece and we did not always get that right either. We need to know talk directly to the students, at an early stage in second level, as to what they want to do when they leave and put the supports in place. I had good meeting with Down Syndrome Ireland, but I will always remember one of the mothers telling me I had no idea how hard it was, in that not only not did she not watch her child progress when he or she left school, she was actually watching the child regress. That is a disgrace and a shame on all of us as a collective. I am determined, if my Department does nothing else, to apply a real focus to this. We have many good initiatives going on, including a fund for students with disabilities and good supports and examples, such as Trinity, but they are still examples. It needs to be embedded. The Deputy is correct in that it is not just higher education; it could be further education, training or higher education. It is about the same diversity of choice. With €5 million, let us get on with a number of projects, led by learners and grounded in the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities.

I could not agree more with the Minister. The point he made about regression is especially appropriate. I recall one graduates from the Trinity Centre for People with Intellectual Disabilities who did not have a job to go to and went back to a day care facility. By the time of her graduation, she did not have the confidence to stand up from her seat to go to get her certificate. That is the scale of regression. We need to work with Irish business which has been so responsive to this. It is inclusive for everybody working in business to see somebody with intellectual disabilities on the reception desk, at the forefront, working in HR and in meaningful, real jobs that are part of the organisation, instead of regressing. This is about empowering those people who choose to go to university. The Trinity Centre for People with Intellectual Disabilities is an especially strong model; it is a gold star. As the Minister said, the challenge is to extend that all other universities and make that accessible, irrespective of what part of the country one is in. These are viable options and parents of young people with intellectual disabilities should not be frightened of that day when they cease to have the learning sports around them that help them continue to progress. I thank the Minister for his work.

I ask the Minister to examine the issue of people with intellectual disabilities in rural areas getting to the centre of further training, education and so on. It can be a massive challenge. They do not qualify for the second-level school transport scheme. Their parents are quite often working and they cannot get to the centre, which may be many miles away and very often, the distances between certain workplaces and centres can be lengthy. That is causing a massive challenge and huge stress. I ask the Minister, with his colleagues, to examine this as a matter of urgency. Has the Minister engaged with the Open Doors Initiative which has done considerable good work in this area?

I am glad we are discussing this topic, about which the Minister has heard me contribute on many times previously, because one of the greatest tragedies is what we lose out on when we do not invest properly in young people with disabilities.

I am glad the Minister referred to the Minister of State with responsibility for special education, Deputy Madigan. I welcome this initiative and others that will follow but we must address the issues at second level. I know of a 15-year-old boy with autism who has not been at school since last September. The school is looking for the resources but the SENOs and others are refusing to give them. In fact, they are working from the point of view that the school must somehow be wasting hours or something. I was glad to see 1,000 new SNAs announced in the budget yesterday but if we go on another three weeks and people do not get what they need within those schools, we are not giving them the chance. I will work with the Minister in whatever way possible to make things happen for young people with disabilities, and autism in particular.

I thank all colleagues for contributing to this debate and Deputy Carroll MacNeill for tabling this question. I will certainly follow up on the points they have made. I do not believe I have met representatives of the organisation Deputy Stanton mentioned but I will make it my business to do so. I fully agree with Deputy Conway-Walsh's point. I do not profess to be an expert on this, but I think the lack of transition planning is a big issue and I know my colleagues, Deputies Madigan and Rabbitte, think that too. It is not for me to tell the Oireachtas committee what to do but perhaps we could delve into this in some detail at a meeting of the education committee with myself, the Department of Education, the Minister of State with responsibility for special education and the Minister of State with responsibility for disabilities. There is a lot of good work going on but it is fragmented and it needs to be joined up. I will work with people across the House in doing this. Crucially, it cannot be us telling the people with disabilities what we are going to put in place. I know we all agree on that. It has to be about listening to them and what they want. On the rural issue, the ETB network has a role to play here. The ETBs are in every community in Ireland and we need to look at how we can expand their role and support them to do that. I would love to explore this in more detail with the Deputies.

Research Funding

Neale Richmond


11. Deputy Neale Richmond asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the steps being taken to ensure that Northern Ireland is involved in the Horizon Europe research programme; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [49456/21]

For the past number of years, the Horizon Europe programme has provided huge funding and motivation, not just for the third-level sector but to so many researchers to develop vital new innovations. In light of Brexit, what steps are being taken by the Government to ensure Northern Irish institutions and researchers will still be able to access the new Horizon Europe programme?

I thank the Deputy for raising this question and for consistently working with me and keeping my Department under good pressure to make sure we do all we can to keep those strong higher education, research and science links that exist between North and South. This is another example of those links.

The Government and I strongly support Northern Ireland’s participation in Horizon Europe, the new framework programme for research and innovation. Researchers and innovators from across the island have worked successfully on previous framework programmes and I want this to continue. As the Deputy will be aware, I am committed to strengthening North-South collaboration in research, and during the summer, the Taoiseach and I launched a €40 million North-South research programme funded from the shared island initiative. This has the potential to be transformational. It will support collaboration among individual researchers, teams and institutions across the island. The programme is currently open for applications, and I am delighted to see the great levels of interest in the programme from across the higher education and research community. My Department is also continuing to work closely with InterTradeIreland to facilitate collaborative opportunities for researchers and innovators that will arise from Horizon Europe.

With respect to the legal process, the principle of the UK's association with the Horizon Europe programme was agreed as part of the overall trade and co-operation agreement and the detailed arrangements are currently being finalised between the European Commission and the UK. Once the UK associates to Horizon Europe, subject to ratification of the overall deal and finalisation of the Horizon Europe programme regulations, association will give researchers and innovators in Northern Ireland access to funding under the programme on equivalent terms as organisations in EU countries. I welcome that and very much want to see that happen.

Furthermore, on an issue I know the Deputy has a great interest in at undergraduate level, the Government has committed to facilitating the continued access to Erasmus mobilities for higher education students in Northern Ireland. Officials in my Department are engaging with their counterparts in the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland on this matter. I am encouraged by the level of interest among students in Northern Ireland on Erasmus. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and I expect to be in a position to make a funding announcement on that shortly.

I have a few supplementary questions. Horizon Europe, or Horizon 2020 as it was known previously, provides opportunities for researchers, institutions and society as a whole across the European Union unlike anything that went before in terms of innovation, life-saving drugs, new technologies and viable economic ventures. It is to the forefront of a strategy that makes this region the world's largest economic bloc. On our own small island, the more collaboration North-South the better and the more we can latch onto that and emphasise it, the better. I have concerns about the overall trade and co-operation agreement and the implementation of the post-Brexit agreements. The Minister referred to the excellent work he and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform have done to ensure Northern Irish students still have access to Erasmus+. Are there any contingency plans, regardless of what is going on in the wider Brexit scope, to ensure Northern Ireland always has access to Horizon?

The Government gave a clear commitment, as did the previous Government, to ensuring that Northern Ireland is never left behind and we are going to honour that commitment in every way we can. I am not in any way disputing the valid points the Deputy made, but I welcome the fact that under the current agreement it is envisaged that the UK, and therefore Northern Ireland, will have access to Horizon 2020 as associate members. That would be a good outcome. I hope that the Deputy can see from my answer today, but more importantly from our actions, that the Government is not standing idly by in respect of research or collaboration. We do not just want to continue doing what we were doing with Northern Ireland or the UK. We want to do more in the higher education and research spaces. To his credit, the Taoiseach's allocation of that €40 million pot from the shared island fund to directly fund research collaborations North and South is innovative and it has been well received. Equally, the commitments we have made under New Decade, New Approach regarding the Magee campus of Ulster University and the expansion of the university there, which is an issue Deputy Conway-Walsh and I discuss regularly, is another tangible example of our wish to do more. While I will leave it to the Minister for Foreign Affairs to engage at EU level, my Department will continue to explore every option to collaborate more and more.

I am struck by the fact that this is yet another lamentable occasion where we do not have the North-South Ministerial Council operating at full capacity. This is the area that is made for that strand 2 institution of the Good Friday Agreement to be running at its best. Within Horizon Europe over the years, Ireland has participated well but it has not got the most out of it. I fear that with the new agreement within the broader UK set-up, Northern Ireland will not necessarily punch above its weight. However, if we have both jurisdictions working together, and I commend the Taoiseach and the shared island unit on everything they are doing, there will be an opportunity to make this a research destination, North-South and east-west across this island. Institutions will be able to collaborate at every level and we can maximise the potential returns from this wonderful European project.

As part of our development of a new national research and innovation strategy, which I expect to have concluded by the end of the year, we will set a new national target for Horizon Europe. I share the Deputy's wish and desire for us to do more, do even better, draw down as much funding as possible and collaborate as much as we possibly can. Our top countries for collaborations are currently Germany, Spain, the UK, Italy and France. I share the Deputy's view in that regard. We will set that new ambitious national target for Horizon Europe as part of our new strategy. I also share the Deputy's concerns about meetings of the North-South Ministerial Council and the like. At an official level there is intensive engagement and collaboration between my officials and officials in the Department for the Economy. We have had very good engagement, particularly around the issue of Magee and Erasmus. I am determined on that issue of Magee that this Government will honour the commitments we have made under New Decade, New Approach to expand that footprint. There is the new medical school there but there is so much potential to do more in Derry and benefit the whole north-west region of this island.

Question No. 12 replied to with Written Answers.

Student Accommodation

Richard Boyd Barrett


13. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science his plans to address student poverty particularly poverty arising from extortionate costs of accommodation and the burden of fees; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [49872/21]

Owen Keegan showed utter contempt for students and the crisis they face with accommodation costs. I put it to the Minister that the Government has not been far off in its contempt due to its failure to address the student poverty crisis and the cost of student accommodation. There are no measures whatsoever in the budget to deal with the extortionate cost of accommodation and the student accommodation crisis, and nothing about reducing the student contribution charge.

Of course the Deputy can put that to me but he will not be surprised when I utterly reject it. I have already given my view on Mr. Keegan's comments and I will not take up time on that. We have taken a number of measures, including in recent days, to assist with student welfare, student mental health and student incomes.

I refer to the pandemic unemployment payment and the significant income support we provided to students over a sustained period of time. That was the right and proper policy decision but the Deputy should look at the direct income and financial assistance we can provide to students. I mention our record on the student assistance fund and the fact that, since I have become Minister, we have provided €16 million more to that fund. I was talking to the president of the UCC students' union in recent days about the challenges there and we provided €1.2 million to the student assistance fund in University College Cork. I refer to the changes to the Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, grants we made yesterday.

I am sure the Deputy wanted us to do more and I accept that but those were good changes and many of the Deputy's constituents will probably benefit from them. For example, we have changed the distance rule so that many students will see their grants rise by up to €2,000 next year as we drop the 45 km rule to 30 km. We made the first maintenance grant increase in many a year as well as making the first income threshold increase for many years so that more families qualify. Some 17,000 free laptops are being provided to students, recognising the shortfall there, and €5 million more is being provided for mental health supports. Period products are being provided for free in a number of our universities, and the contraception changes we made yesterday will benefit young people, many of whom are students. I also mention the public transport measures that have been announced.

I accept we have an awful lot more to do. We had a lengthy discussion earlier about purpose-built and college-owned student accommodation that is affordable and I am happy to come back to that in my supplementary response. I accept we have a road to travel but we took a number of measures yesterday that will help students, starting with the most vulnerable and the most in need. That is the most socially just way to approach it.

The student grants have not gone up for nearly a decade so the small patch-up we saw in the budget yesterday does not go anywhere near dealing with the cost of living and, in particular, the accommodation cost hikes we have seen. In three months alone this summer in Dublin there was a 5.6% rise in rents. That was on top of an almost 5% increase the year before. Average rents in Dublin are running at about €2,000 per month and then there is the issue of fees. The Union of Students in Ireland, ourselves and others have been asking the Minister to get rid of the student contribution charge. Whenever I meet students, whether they are undergraduates or postgraduates, they talk about the fees. People pay €15,000 to do psychology, allied health professional courses, PhDs and masters courses and then the bulk of students pay €3,000 a year. They asked the Minister to reduce the fees by even €1,000 but nothing was done. I put it to the Minister that with the cost of living increases, the fees and so on, student poverty has not been addressed in the budget in any way.

No single budget solves all of the challenges people face but the Deputy's critical analysis of the budget would have more validity if he acknowledged some of the positive steps we have taken in recent weeks, days and months. Those steps include the significant investment in the student assistance fund that has been widely welcomed by students, the significant increase in mental health funding, and the more than 17,000 free laptops that have been provided to recognise that the cost of a laptop was a barrier to participation for some people. I accept we have a way to go with SUSI grants and I will not argue with the Deputy on that but we took a significant step yesterday. The package of SUSI measures we announced yesterday would cost €60 million in a full year.

I would like to see the registration fee reduced, but if the Deputy was in my position he would see this provides access to a certain amount of additional funding for the year. It is appropriate we start by increasing the grants for people on lower incomes rather than reducing the fees for the son or daughter of a much more wealthy person, and I would have thought the Deputy would have agreed with this. We made a socially just decision yesterday to prioritise the resources towards those most in need.

The Government gave €63 million to KBC Bank Ireland and Ulster Bank yesterday as a goodbye present as they exit the Irish market, so I ask the Minister not to tell me about the €60 million, which is less than that, which the Government gave to students. Students will be outside Dublin City Council today and I will be speaking to them, as will other Members. You need only talk to students to determine why they are on the streets. The issue of student accommodation was not an acute crisis ten years ago the way it is now. The issue of fees is a major barrier to us dealing with some of the skills shortages we have in this country. Anybody who is trying to do a masters or postgraduate degree will tell the Minister they are crippled by fees and the student nurses are still not being paid for placement. Student poverty is a reality, and it is not just bad for the students but it is also bad for our society. This was not seriously addressed in the budget and there were a lot more giveaways for the banks, the special assignee relief programme and God knows what else than there were for students.

I acknowledge the progress the Minister is making and I welcome the student assistance fund that was announced at the weekend. In my constituency it amounted to almost €250,000, which is important to the students of the Tralee campus of the Munster Technological University. The Minister was there recently and he met Chris Clifford and the other students' union representatives. As we come towards the end of the year, sometimes funding in Departments frees up and there is some discretionary funding. The student assistance fund is very welcome and the money can be spent by the end of the year. I ask the Minister to be vigilant in keeping an eye out for any funding that might be available so that more can be ploughed into the student assistance fund before the year end.

I will do that and I thank Deputy Griffin for bringing me around Tralee. Deputy Boyd Barrett suggested I should talk to students and I do so all the time. They are not the preserve or ownership of any single side of this House. We need to do more in student supports and we took significant actions yesterday. We could not rectify everything in one budget but it is a statement of intent by this Government, and before the end of the year we will bring forward proposals on a sustainable funding model for higher education.

I want to be clear in case anyone seeks to misrepresent this. It will not involve student loans or any of those other failed policies that have been tried in other jurisdictions, including jurisdictions on this island, that have been bad for students and have left them indebted as they leave our universities. We took a number of actions yesterday, including the students assistance fund, SUSI grants, free laptops, mental health supports, changes to the adjacent grants to do directly and exactly what the Deputy is asking for. There are some students whose SUSI grant will rise by €2,000 as a result of those changes yesterday. That is a direct recognition of the cost of living issues we need to address. We have more to do and we are happy to work with students on this.

Question No. 14 replied to with Written Answers.

Third Level Reform

Jennifer Murnane O'Connor


15. Deputy Jennifer Murnane O'Connor asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the progress on the full integration of Carlow College, St. Patrick's into the higher education system in the south-east region; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [49806/21]

I would like to ask the Minister about the full integration of Carlow College, St. Patrick's into the higher education system in the south east. As the Minister knows, I have met him several times about this issue and it is close to my heart. We are lucky in Carlow that we have two excellent third level colleges, Institute of Technology Carlow and Carlow College, St. Patrick's, and we are delighted that in 2022 the south east will have a technological university. That is important but the issue is with Carlow College, St. Patrick's. What is the update on the integration of that institution into the higher education system in the south east?

I thank the Deputy for the question and for her passionate advocacy, to put it mildly, on Carlow College, St. Patrick's and all things Carlow. I always welcome working with her on these projects and I look forward to us delivering a technological university for the south east in 2022.

As the Deputy knows, Carlow College, St. Patrick's is a privately run education institution operating outside the publicly funded higher education system. At the Deputy's request, I have met the leadership there, including the president, Fr. Conn Ó Maoldhomhnaigh, and I thank them for all their doing and for their commitment to education. Following that engagement between the college and my Department, I met the college principals at their request on 17 August. We are putting a process in place with them so they can analyse and be best prepared to see what role they can play in the context of the new technological university. I understand the college is in the process of appointing an expert to carry out that work. I look forward to visiting Carlow College, St. Patrick's with the Deputy in November. That will be an opportunity for us to progress matters.

I thank the Minister and we will be delighted to have him in Carlow in November. A technological university will be so important for the south east, particularly for my area of Carlow. As I said, we have two excellent third level institutions and the integration of Carlow College, St. Patrick's into the technological university is so important. As the Minister knows, I have met the Taoiseach on this and I had another meeting with him this morning, so the Minister knows how hard I am working on this and I deliver a 100% commitment. The Taoiseach is behind me so he can confirm I spoke to him this morning. I thank the Minister and the Taoiseach for their support.

The Deputy is upping the pressure on me. The Taoiseach regularly passes on the Deputy's strong advocacy and we are determined to work with her to rectify this matter. I need to point out the technological university will be autonomous in its functions. The decision we are taking to provide expert advice to Carlow College, St. Patrick's is the best way to go about this and I look forward to visiting Carlow in November and to talking to the Deputy about it then.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.