Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar
Gnáthamharc

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 19 May 2022

Vol. 1022 No. 4

Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Third Level Education

Rose Conway-Walsh

Ceist:

95. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the steps he has taken to ensure that adequate places on in-demand courses, particularly where there is a corresponding skill shortage, have been made available in order to take pressure off the CAO system and reduce the need to use random selection to allocate places; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25388/22]

My first question today is to ask the Minister what steps he has taken to ensure adequate places for in-demand courses, particularly where there is a corresponding skills shortage, have been made available to take the pressure off the CAO system and reduce the need to use random selection to allocate places. It is disappointing to see reports that the CAO system will again use a lottery to allocate places for in-demand courses. It is unfair on students, who are already dealing with a huge amount of pressure.

As is Deputy Conway-Walsh, I am keenly aware of the pressure felt by students applying to enter higher education. I assure her and the House that I am taking action to relieve these pressures.

I requested quite some time ago that my officials would engage with the higher education sector on the creation of additional places in, as the Deputy rightly says, key areas as identified by our skills architecture and, as she also said, in in-demand areas. These engagements are at a very advanced stage. I can inform her that we hope to create places in areas of acute skills need such as healthcare, construction and green skills. However it is important to create these places in a sustainable way, cognisant of the expanded facilities, lecturing expertise and clinical and other placements needed, and to do so in areas that open up continuing career opportunities for learners.

In looking to increase capacity in tertiary education it is vital that we take a whole-of-system approach which covers further education and apprenticeships as well as higher education programmes. I have heard legitimate commentary on this in recent months. We must support a balanced further and higher education system that has a multitude of pathways for learners to follow.

I assure the Deputy there will be additional places in the in-demand areas. We are trying to take a more targeted approach this year than in previous years. I expect to be in a position very shortly to update the Government on the outcome of the engagements with higher education institutions. I should also flag, as I have referenced, that a number of these in-demand areas require clinical placements. As the Deputy can imagine, there has been a lot of engagement between my Department and other relevant Departments and agencies, for example, the Department of Health and the HSE with regard to medicine places. I am pleased to report very good progress on this. In the coming weeks we will be in a position to provide the detail on the number of additional places and where they will be.

Time is of the essence. How many of the extra places allocated in the past two years were taken up? How many of them led to students taking up those places? What is needed now is for students to know that everything is being done to help them to progress their education and careers. The Department of Education needs to get a handle on the grade inflation. We also need to expand in-demand courses, particularly in the areas the Minister has outlined where there are skills shortages.

I welcome the fact the long-awaited economic evaluation of further funding options for higher education contained the clear recognition that inadequate core funding has caused colleges to increase the provision of subjects that are cheaper to deliver at the expense of the more expensive subjects, particularly in health and social care. This has been an open secret in the sector. Deputy Harris, as a former Minister for Health and now Minister with responsibility for further and higher education, has to bear a lot of responsibility for these shortages in staffing and third level places.

I would be delighted to come here and debate my record in the Department of Health but we probably do not have time in the 58 seconds available to me other than to say the number of people working in the health service grew every year I was Minister for Health.

I agree with the Deputy that time is of the essence in terms of providing clarity on the additional numbers. We are honing in on finalising it. I expect the additional number of places to be somewhere in the region of 800 to 1,000. This is subject to finalisation but it is my expectation. What I am trying to do, and I think it is something on which we agree, is to target them to in-demand areas and areas where there are skills needs. I will outline to the House the three areas that are very prominent. They are healthcare, construction and climate and green skills. We speak a lot about construction in the context of apprenticeships and rightly so but of course construction will also need more architects and engineers and people who will go through the higher education system.

I do not have to hand the information the Deputy is looking for on the number of places taken up last year but I will provide it in writing to her.

Earlier this week the Irish Pharmacy Union, IPU, warned that a growing shortage of pharmacists is fast becoming a major threat to community healthcare. It now takes an average of five months to fill a vacant position in pharmacies. It called on the Government to increase the number of third level places. It referred to the chronic lack of university places. It is the same with regard to medicine places as we have said. We have seen staff shortages in the HSE and a crisis with GPs, particularly in rural areas. Any increase in medicine has been excruciatingly slow. Again this morning we saw a backlog in Mayo University Hospital. Staff are run off their feet. We see with doctors and out-of-hour services that the pressure is immense, particularly in rural communities. This could be rectified immediately by purchasing places that would otherwise be allocated to high fee-paying international students. Half of all of the places allocated are to fee-paying international students. It is very healthy to have a mix of international students but they are more likely to be mobile and to return home. We need to educate a workforce who will stay here and service all of these rural areas and hospitals such as Mayo University Hospital.

There are two parts to workforce planning. One is whether we are training enough people in any profession. The second is that if we are training enough people whether they choose to stay working in that area or to stay working in Ireland. The role of the Department is to work with line Departments to identify the number of places they believe are required to adequately meet workforce needs. Places are only part of it. I am very clear that we need to train more doctors in this country. It is utterly wrong that people who get the most points possible in the leaving certificate cannot get a place in medicine. We agree on this. I also know that we train quite a lot of doctors in Ireland relative to other countries. It is not just about training. It is also about retention and contracts. It has to do with places and what we do to keep people in the workforce. There is an open invitation to every Department and State agency to engage with my Department on their workforce needs. If the Department of Health or the HSE is of the view that there is a requirement to increase the number of pharmacy places we are ready to speak to them and work with them on it.

Third Level Fees

Aodhán Ó Ríordáin

Ceist:

96. Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science his plans to reduce the student contribution charge in budget 2023; if so, the amount to be reduced; if the reduction will be backdated to the start of the 2022-2023 academic year; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25375/22]

What are the Minister's plans to reduce the student contribution charge in budget 2023? By how much will it be reduced?

As Deputy Ó Ríordáin is aware, on 4 May I launched the Funding the Future framework, which includes the Government's policy response to the Cassells report and the Directorate General for Structural Reform Support, DG REFORM, reviews on the future of higher education. It clearly sets out my intention to implement a progressive range of measures to address costs as a barrier to education, in the context of overall budgetary decision-making.

Let me be very clear, the cost of education to families must be reduced in this country. I am very determined about that and am very pleased that the Government has now made a number of important decisions about a sustainable model for future funding of higher education. In making decisions on what to do, we have also made decisions on what not to do. We have taken student loans off the table. They are wrong and do not work. I know that is something the Deputy and I agree on. We have instead chosen a mixed model of investment, which will include the Exchequer investing an awful lot more in higher education.

We talk a lot about big figures. We need to put an extra €307 million into core funding. I prefer to think of it as almost €2,000 more being spent per student on his or her education. The €307 million will mean the investment of an additional €2,000 per student per year in his or her education. I was also clear that we would not bring forward a plan that would just address core funding. We have to bring forward a plan that recognises the cost of education for working families must be reduced. I want to see the student contribution in higher education reduced in a meaningful way over the course of future budgets. I want this done in a way that does not rob Peter to pay Paul. The €307 million is for core funding but it is not an either-or option. We need to do both. I want to make sure that we see improvements in student grants and that, at the same time, we try to reduce the overall level of the student contribution fee.

The Deputy will know I cannot announce budget 2023 or even the element that relates to my Department, but I have reached an agreement with the Government that every year, in advance of the budget process, my Department will publish an annual cost of education paper. This is really important, and it has been done in the context of social welfare and tax. It makes sure that every year the House has an opportunity to focus on what measures and policy levers we can put in place to reduce the cost to families. That paper will also set out the options to improve the student grant scheme and to reduce the student contribution fee.

I am very determined to reduce the student contribution fee over the course of a number of budgets and I want to start that as quickly as possible.

I know I am a little bit older than the Minister. I am a child of the 1990s, a time when if a household had two university-age-going children, they may have only been able to send one. As part of the Labour Party's contribution to the Government at the time, half-fees were introduced halfway through my time in university, followed by completely free fees as it was called. Education cost nothing. It was absolutely free. There was zero cost.

While the Minister is making all the right noises in terms of the reduction of the contribution charge etc. is it his vision that the cost would be zero? Is it the vision of his new Department or the Government, that in future years we would revert to where we were in the 1990s, that is, of having a zero euro sign beside the expectations of what families will contribute?

While I am a little bit younger that the Deputy, I do remember the policy work of former Minister Niamh Bhreathnach, someone I hold in high regard. If I were to be totally honest, and this is an objective statement, the fees were reduced but the core funding piece was not addressed. What we are trying to do, and we have been working on this on a cross-party basis, is to try to do both.

Education is a public good. Cost should never be a barrier to anybody attending education and I believe cost is a barrier today. If a person has two children going to college at the same time, doing a four-year degree, the registration fees for them is €24,000. That is a lot of money. I do not represent many people who have €24,000 down the back of the couch. It means people have to go to credit unions. They have to put off doing other things to find that money. The cost must be reduced. It is one of the few measures that was hiked at a time of austerity that has not been addressed and I am determined to reduce it.

Ideologically, where I would love to get in relation to higher education, I believe it is a public good and third level education is a natural extension of the education system. The Government commitment is to increase student grants and gradually reduce the registration fee over a number of budgets.

It was not just an austerity measure; it began increasing from 1997 onwards. As soon as a charge is introduced, it can inevitably be increased. It increased from whatever it was in 1997 to approximately €1,000 within six or seven years. My point is that if the Minister does not have a vision or an absolute of free education at further and third level education, it will always be a measure that will be tinkered with and increased over time. That is the exact experience of the Oireachtas on the initiative of the mid-1990s.

While the Minister is making the right noises as to bringing down the contribution charge in the budget, and I understand he cannot make any promises in that regard or debate the budget in advance, I am trying to get to the core of his vision and belief system. Can we work towards a situation in which we return to where we were in the 1990s, which was an awful lot better for every family that had ambitions for their children to better themselves?

That is where I would like to get to but I do not want to mislead the House or students in how we will make progress in this issue. Students and families have been waiting too long for progress on this matter. We do not want to engage in a situation of creating an expectation that cannot be met.

I would be fascinated to know if the Deputy or anyone else in this House were the Minister and had a choice to make in the next budget between targeting the supports at students most in need, in terms of student grants, or reducing the registration fee, what would they do. Would they increase the grants and not reduce the fees, reduce the fees and not increase the grants or do a bit of both? These are genuinely the issues with which we will have to grapple in the coming budget. We are trying to put in place a moment in time each year in which my Department will publish a cost of education paper that sets out the options and allows us to debate them. I do not think it is a case of either-or. We should increase the student grant, which was fit for purpose ten years ago but is not now in terms of cost of living, and we should reduce the registration fee. We should do both. The policy paper sets that out as the direction of travel. We cannot do that at the expense of the core funding. I look forward to making progress with the Deputy and others on this in the coming months.

Third Level Costs

Rose Conway-Walsh

Ceist:

97. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the steps that he is taking to support students and parents with the cost-of-living crisis, making particular reference to the 25% increase to SUSI recommended in the recently published SUSI review and any plans to reduce student fees for the upcoming academic year; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25389/22]

When will the paper on the cost of third level education be published? I want to talk to the Minister about SUSI and the supports for students and parents in the context of the cost-of-living crisis. I make particular reference to the 25% increase to the SUSI grant, as recommended in the recently published SUSI review. Does he have plans to reduce fees for the upcoming academic year? I sincerely welcome his recognition that the current level of fees is an austerity measure that cannot continue. Will he elaborate on that?

The honest answer to the question as to when we will publish the paper is that it will be in advance of the budget. I will get the Deputy a more specific answer than that. It will be in enough time for the Sinn Féin's alternative budget or pre-budget submissions and for me to begin to grapple with and discuss these issues. One imagines it will be published in the autumn but I will provide the Deputy with a more specific time. In truth, we have not decided yet but I will come back to her on that.

Addressing the costs of education for students and families is a major priority for me. Cost cannot be a barrier for working families getting their children into college. That is why I commissioned a review of the student grant scheme when I took up office, which was published on 4 May. The review involved wide stakeholder engagement, an extensive consultation with students and research into the costs of higher education. The review identified a number of issues, including the rising costs affecting students over the past decade; the fact that the income thresholds for eligibility in the scheme have not kept pace with the rise of earnings over the same period; particular costs, which the Deputy will know well from her constituency, for those who travel long distances to their place of education; and the costs associated with postgraduate study.

We have taken some steps already to alleviate financial pressures, which helps to tackle issues raised in the student grant review. There will be an increase in the grant payment for all those in receipt of a maintenance grant by €200 from September. We have increased the qualifying thresholds by €1,000 to bring more people into the grant scheme. Importantly, and this was the most important change introduced, we changed the qualifying distance for the non-adjacent rate of grant to help students who live further away from college. We have increased the postgraduate fee grant, from €2,000 to €3,500, as well as the postgraduate fee grant income threshold. All of these measures are very much in line with and are a commencement of the implementation of the student grant review.

I have committed to publishing an annual costs of education paper, which will set out the range of options to address costs, including changes to both the student grant scheme and student contributions. This will seek to inform decision-making at budget time regarding what further measures we can take to continue to support students and their families. Last year, from memory I believe we received a funding package of approximately €30 million to invest in additional student supports. We largely put that into the SUSI grant scheme. I expect we will receive another funding package for student supports and we will grapple with and discuss, in this House and elsewhere, how best to spend that in a way that support students and families.

Students and their families almost have announcement fatigue at this stage because measures are announced over and over again. They know how much money they have in their pocket or household budget because they are facing a cost-of-living crisis.

Some of it has been driven by international events, though the SUSI review highlights that the greatest burden comes from the cost of rent and the housing crisis, which is a domestic crisis. The SUSI review states that there needs to be a 25% increase in the maintenance grant, which is far more than the planned €200 increase. The entire planned increase of the student maintenance grant of €200, announced last October and to be introduced this September, will be completely eaten up by inflation before students even see it. That is why I called on the Minister, at the time, to bring the increase into effect immediately to help ease the burden, as inflation was already putting real pressure on families. The Minister refused to take that practical step. This was supposed to be a small step towards taking SUSI out of austerity mode. Now, with inflation at 6.7% or higher students will be worse off, in real terms, come September, despite the increase. Students and families are really anxious about what is going to happen this September.

I thank the Deputy. The SUSI grant review is an extremely important piece of work. It provides us with absolute clarity on the key issues that students and other stakeholders wish to see us address in better supporting students and their families in this country. Even in advance of publishing the review, we had begun to make progress on those recommendations. We introduced a very significant reduction to the distance criteria. That means that many students will qualify for a lot more than an extra €200 in their grant. Some students will actually see their grant rise by over 25% as a result of that change, particularly students, I would suggest, living in rural and provincial Ireland who are travelling long distances to get to college. We have begun to cost the measures of implementing the scheme. I am happy to share that with the Deputy. I am sure the information will be useful for her own work. If we were to go ahead and increase the level of the student grant by 25% from the 2021 maintenance rates, as recommended in the review, the cost would be €43.6 million. I genuinely believe that the findings and recommendations of the student grant scheme review are deliverable. Are all of them deliverable in one year and one budget? They are simply not. However, we can make significant progress in the forthcoming budget. I believe we can get through a lot of those recommendations in the lifetime of this Government, and make a real and substantial difference.

I ask the Minister to do everything possible. I hear his sentiments on not excluding students from education. I am fearful that people's choices will be greatly reduced because of the high cost of accommodation and the high cost of accessing third level education. I fear that students will need to work while they study and am concerned about what that will do in terms of outcomes for students. We really need to concentrate our focus on the matter. Inflation is now at 6.7%. We see that in Britain, it has risen to 9%. I would not be surprised at all if we are at double-digit levels of inflation by the end of this year. The severe impact of that cannot be underestimated, particularly for families who perhaps have two or three students going to college, and some going to secondary school. We, in opposition, will work with the Minister. We need to work collectively to do everything possible to alleviate that burden on students and families.

I will certainly work with the Deputy and others in the House on the issue. In terms of context, I think it is important to note that we live in a country where more than four out of ten students receive student grants and more than four out of ten students do not pay the €3,000 registration fee. I say that because I often worry that a secondary school student might be listening to the debate and wondering if he or she can go to college. It is important to note that around 42% of students receive financial assistance in respect of the registration fee. We have taken other measures that benefit students. One of the most significant measures was introduced by my colleague, the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, namely, the reduction in public transport fares. While there is a reduction for the population at large, there is a 50% reduction for people under the age of 24, many of whom will be students. We are definitely agreed that we need to do more and that budget 2023 will need to do more. I will certainly work with the Deputy in the House to do that, and to advocate across Government for it to happen.

Third Level Education

Gary Gannon

Ceist:

98. Deputy Gary Gannon asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science his plans to support graduate entry medicine students following the decision by a bank (details supplied) to discontinue the only specialist loan available to support these students. [25282/22]

I ask the Minister how he intends to support graduate entry medicine students following the withdrawal of the products by the bank that previously provided loans to support students taking the course.

I am very aware of the challenge caused by the withdrawal of the existing loan products designed for students wishing to study medicine through the graduate entry route. Indeed, in recent days I met students in UCD to discuss the issue. Decisions regarding which loan products to offer are, of course, a commercial matter for the banks concerned. That is a statement of fact. However, I do understand from students who have written to me, those I have met in UCD and engagement with the relevant higher education institutions that the availability of such loans has been important in supporting people, particularly mature students, to study medicine. With that in mind I took the decision to write the institution in question. While noting that it is a commercial decision, I have highlighted the critical public policy considerations relevant to this loan product. I think it is particularly unfortunate that there was such an immediate cliff edge. I understand that it is entirely a commercial matter. However, it would have been extremely useful if, in making that commercial decision, a lead-in time had been provided, perhaps even a lead-in period of 12 months. A student thinking of pursuing graduate entry medicine in March, April or May would be presuming that the product would be in place. The fact that the product was pulled so quickly, and with immediate effect for the September 2022 entrants, is problematic. It has created a cliff edge that is unfortunate. While recognising that it is a commercial decision, I ask the bank to reconsider. At the very least, I ask the bank to consider if the cliff edge could be removed and a bit of time provided. I want a lead-in period provided in order that we can consider and put in place a range of policy and funding tools, from a Government point of view, to try to increase the supply of domestic medical graduates. I hope to be in a position to make an announcement to Government colleagues shortly on additional medicine places, as I referenced earlier. Looking forward, the recently published student grant scheme review identifies public policy questions regarding greater student grant support for graduate entry routes. There are significant policy, legislative and funding considerations, as well as wider implications, if the current treatment of graduate entry medicine is amended. However, we now have this review and all elements will be subject to consideration and prioritisation, alongside other cost of education measures, through the budget process. This will include consideration of the potential for additional supports for students of graduate entry medicine. We are looking at what we can do. I encourage the bank to provide more time and not create this immediate cliff edge.

I thank the Minister for his response. In the Minister's previous engagement with Deputy Conway-Walsh, he mentioned the fact that he did not want to talk about barriers to education, because he wants everyone to believe that they can go to college. That is very relevant and important and I endorse that. However, there are certain courses that are simply not accessible to students, regardless of how hard they might try to access them. For example, 4% of the graduate entry medicine student cohort come from what would have been previously categorised as disadvantaged backgrounds. The student loan that was previously provided by the Bank of Ireland came to €60,000 over the course of five years. However, that required a parental guarantee of over €50,000. That potentially excluded people from one-parent families and those living in poverty, as one in six people do in this country. The decision made by the bank was a commercial one. However, the consequence was that certain courses in our State were simply the preserve of those who could afford them. I think the Minister agrees that this should not continue. I welcome the fact that the Minister is considering the matter and intends to make policy announcements on it, but there is an urgency to it. Perhaps the Minister can expand on his plans in his response.

Before the commercial decision of the bank was made, I had already had a number of very useful meetings with students of graduate entry medicine. They made points like those made by the Deputy. From my former role as Minister for Health, I think that diversity in professions, and in the medical profession, is a good thing. I also think that diverse routes of entry into medicine are good. There is an idea that everyone must start the course immediately after finishing school. However, it may be advantageous to actually have doctors who have studied something else, for example, science or occupational therapy, and go on to study medicine. There is a policy benefit from the health service's point of view as well. Being honest, I think that as a Department and a Government, we need to do more in supporting those who take the graduate entry medicine route. It is complex, because the course is a level 8 course. We need to ensure that there is no contagion or unintended policy consequences. We already provide some financial assistance towards the costs for students. There are options to do more. We are looking at whether we can do more in the context of the budget and the SUSI review. What I am saying, in the round, is that it would be very useful if the bank did not immediately withdraw this product, which has created a cliff edge that is causing a lot of stress and anxiety for students and potential students.

I fully agree on the Minister's point about diversity of access and routes to entry. That is important. There are different models that I hope the Minister will consider. Perhaps SUSI can be expanded up to graduate level not just for medicine, but also for other courses that have previously been the preserve of those who can afford them. There are examples from other jurisdictions, such as the Scottish St. Andrew's model, whereby students got access to study medicine through a bursary for accommodation and living costs. Those students made a commitment to work in NHS Scotland. Such a model could have huge benefits for us. If we are educating people from whatever level and age, bringing them into our own health service and getting a commitment that they will stay there if we invest in their education, that could have positive ramifications both for our health service and society in general. I hope the Government is being innovative in the type of policy solutions being considered. I appreciate why the Minister is encouraging the bank not to create a cliff edge. However, we must demonstrate urgency in bringing these measures forward, hopefully within the next budgetary cycle.

That is a fair comment. I will certainly take the Deputy's considerations on board. For the record, graduate entry medicine courses are not approved for funding under the student grant schemes because progression is a key tenet. Students accessing graduate entry medicine will, as a matter of course, hold a level 8 qualification prior to entry. Completion of a graduate-entry medicine degree also confers a further level 8 qualification. I accept, however, that there is a difference here because we want to train more people and to create more pathways. We are looking at how we can do more. There are options where we can increase the State’s contribution towards the fees or we can change the eligibility for SUSI grants, or we could look to doing a bit of both. We were progressing this matter before the bank’s decision, which has compounded what is an already very difficult issue. I recognise that this is a commercial matter, but it is not unreasonable to ask a bank that was supported by the Irish people through difficult times wait for a period and not to create an immediate cliff edge.

Apprenticeship Programmes

Michael McNamara

Ceist:

99. Deputy Michael McNamara asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the number of electrical, plumbing, carpentry-joinery and bricklaying and stone-laying apprentices, respectively, waiting to progress their off-the-job training in phases 2, 4 and 6, respectively, across SOLAS and the higher education sector in tabular form; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25529/22]

I ask the Minister what are the number of electrical, plumbing, carpentry, joinery, bricklaying and stone-laying apprenticeships, respectively, waiting to progress off-the-job training in phases 2, 4 and 6, respectively across SOLAS and the higher education sector in tabular form. Can he make a statement on the matter? I want to know where the backlogs are in the various apprenticeship sectors and whether there are many such backlogs.

I thank Deputy McNamara for his question. I know he has raised it previously.

The backdrop to the current waiting lists for essential practical training for apprentices is reflected in the extended shutdown of on-site learning activity from March 2020. The closure of education and training facilities in response to the Covid-19 pandemic precluded access to off-the-job training. The very welcome growth in registrations has compounded these pressures. However, the education and training system is responding energetically to reduce waiting times. My Department has been advised by SOLAS that there are 8,208 apprentices waiting to access off-the-job training, of whom 7,228 are waiting for phase 2 and 980 for phases 4 and 6. It can be expected that at any one time, some apprentices will be waiting for a planned intake. The numbers currently waiting are high, however, and reflect the unprecedented circumstances from March 2020. My Department has also been advised that as of 17 May, the number of apprentices waiting for all phases of off-the-job training included: 3,616 in electrical; 1,162 in plumbing; 844 in carpentry; and 98 in bricklaying and stone-laying.

Implementation of a major response plan to address the waiting lists is well advanced. In order to introduce additional capacity, capital funding of €20 million was provided in 2020 to extend and upgrade facilities. Additional funding of €17 million has been provided to SOLAS and the Higher Education Authority, HEA, to underpin the plan to reduce backlogs. Some €6 million of this is being invested in employing additional instructors, with over 100 additional posts approved.

In light of progress in dealing with the pandemic by means of public health management, classes returned to their full intake of 14 to 16 apprentices last September. More than 8,400 apprentices - in excess of 70% of those delayed by Covid-19 - have now progressed. This includes more than 700 final-year apprentices who have been fast-tracked to complete their qualification. Craft apprentices waiting for phases 4 and 6 are expected to be cleared later this year, with the majority of phase 2 waiting lists targeted to be cleared by the end of the year.

SOLAS and the HEA are continuing to work with education and training providers, with the support of my Department, to identify further solutions that will address the waiting lists and that are fully consistent with the management of the quality, standard and safety of apprenticeship provision.

I thank the Minister of State. Am I correct stating that as many people are waiting now as have been cleared from the waiting list? I appreciate the efforts the Government is making, but it is still worrying. The senior Minister made many pronouncements recently about the necessity for a greater parity of esteem between people going to apprenticeships and those going into the more academic sector, with which I completely agree. If one looks at the emphasis on ensuring that there are not backlogs in the higher education sector in the practical side of medicine, dentistry, etc., compared with the waiting lists which have built up in the areas to which I referred in the original question, it does not reflect that Government priority. The Minister also announced very ambitious targets about getting new people into the trade sector. I am not sure if the Minister of State shares the ambition of the Minister. Maybe it is the case that not many people in the House share his level of ambition. The problem is that sometimes the performance of the Department he leads does not quite match up to his ambition. I am worried that that will be the case in this instance.

I welcome the ambitious targets and the announcements that the Minister of State has made. At this stage, however, we have to say that there are as many people waiting as there are those who have been cleared through the apprenticeship system. If we are going to attract those apprentices - and we all agree that we need them - we have to ensure that they can be guaranteed to get through their apprenticeships in the timeframe set out at the start and that said timeframe does not change from four to seven years in the middle.

I thank the Deputy. We all share the same ambitions and it is good to see that those ambitions are, in the main, being realised. The apprenticeship action plan set out a target to achieve 10,000 new apprenticeship registrations per annum by 2025. In the year 2021, a record 8,607 new apprentices were registered on the system. That is an increase of nearly 40% on the comparator year, namely, 2019, which was, as the Deputy is aware, prior to the pandemic.

On the backlog, we have the added problem, which is a good one, of a good surge of new people coming into the system. The clearance projections have fallen and risen again due to, as I just mentioned, the number of people signing up. In August 2021, there were 11,859 in the backlog. In January, that fell to 9,500. In February, it fell further to 7,700. It has risen slightly again due to the surge of new apprentices coming into the system.

Again, I am slightly concerned because that sounds a bit like the Taoiseach explaining the inadequacies of our health system by saying that we are victims of our own success in that life expectancy has risen. With an increase in life expectancy, of course, there are more people who need hospital care. With the increase in the number of apprentices, there are more people who need to have their apprenticeships provided for by the State. I do not know if that did not occur to the Department. I hope it did. It still comes down to the fact that we have these waiting lists. While I appreciate that something is being done, it is fair to say that this is not enough. There are still people who are four years into a four-year apprenticeship and who are looking at having to do a further two or three years. That is both unfair and inadequate. It is not just bad for them personally but it is bad for attracting other people into apprenticeships. It is also bad for the housebuilding sector and for the trades they are going to work in because it is a supply-and-demand situation.

I appreciate that work is being done. More needs to be done. The "We are the victims of our own success" line only cuts it so far.

It is important to reiterate that significant money was applied towards creating additional capacity. I have explained to the Deputy the additional number of posts that have been approved, which is more than 100. There were also other interventions in the delivery structures of phase 2 off-the-job training and the facilitation of a third intake.

Last December, there was an opt-in rapid employer assessment for phase 7. Many new changes have been brought in. We also have to be mindful, upon which I believe we will also all agree, that one has to protect the quality of the training being provided and of the whole apprenticeship system. It is challenging, but we are dealing with and making progress on it.

Barr
Roinn