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Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 19 May 2022

Vol. 1022 No. 4

Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Third Level Admissions

Ruairí Ó Murchú

Ceist:

100. Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the measures being considered in respect of the yearly increase in the number of applicants to the CAO system and the lack of places for the most in demand courses; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25342/22]

What measures are being considered to the yearly increase in the number of applications to the CAO system and the lack of places for the most in-demand courses? I ask that the Minister take into account the issue of having to deal still with the issue of grade inflation, the date of results, which is an issue for a great number of students and parents, and the particular issue of necessary workforce planning.

I thank the Deputy for his question. There is a very important issue there on the date of the results. The challenge was borne out in trying to do something good by students to ensure that there was a second opportunity to sit the leaving certificate for those impacted by Covid.

At the same time, this is a call for the State Examinations Commission, SEC, to make, rather than the Minister for Education. It would be useful for the commission to make that call and do so quickly. Students and their families need that information, even in terms of the logistics of planning for how their summer looks and whether they want to take a break. There also are the big issues to consider, such as securing student accommodation when the college year starts. I very much hope clarity can be brought urgently to this matter.

I thank the Deputy for raising the important issue of applications to the CAO system and how we continue to create places for the most in-demand courses. Although last year's CAO application numbers were the highest on record, more applicants than ever before were offered and accepted a place in higher education. In fact, the majority of offers made were for first preference courses. I say that in acknowledgment of the work done by people in the higher education sector. This year's CAO application numbers look to be slightly lower than last year's, although they remain high overall. I very much recognise that. In order to ensure applicants are given every opportunity to follow an educational path that works for them, I am seeking both to create additional college places in areas of identified skills need and to broaden the national conversation on third level options.

My officials have been engaging extensively with the Higher Education Authority, HEA, and the higher education sector to identify where additional places can and should be provided in the system for the next academic year. These additional places will be targeted at areas of acute skills need, as identified through our national skills architecture. Courses that provide healthcare workers, courses related to construction and courses related to the green economy are of particular interest because we see both significant demand for such courses and significant need for workers in those areas. I am pleased to say that engagements on providing additional places are at a very advanced stage and it is hoped that approximately 1,000 additional places can be created.

However, increasing the number of places is only one part of the answer. In tandem with this, it is vital that all learners have access to the right courses for them across the spectrum of provision. Increasing capacity in apprenticeship programmes, as we discussed earlier, and the provision of further education options must be part of a balanced third level education system.

I welcome the Minister's answer. A major issue that needs to be taken into account, as Deputy Conway-Walsh mentioned, is that colleges, on the basis of the funding structure, may sometimes choose to offer particular courses because it makes more financial sense to do so. We need to deal with that aspect.

In regard to the whole issue of workforce planning, lifelong learning and the various route maps through education, the Minister spoke about the national skills architecture. Will he give some detail in that regard? In the area of health, for example, has he had much engagement from the Department of Health in regard to further training, particularly of nurses? I have in mind lifelong learning and facilitating people who are working in healthcare and who may want to go on to become a nurse. In many cases, these staff are willing to commit to the health system and they are people we desperately need.

The short answer to the Deputy's question about whether we have had engagement with the Department of Health is "Yes". The most intense area of engagement, to be truthful, has been around places in medicine. As I said in answer to an earlier question, it is the job of my Department to try to respond to the workforce planning needs of other Departments. It is not my Department's job to say we need X number of doctors or Y number of social workers. Where other Departments and agencies come forward and say there is a need to train more doctors, nurses and so on, we will work with them on that. It is only right and proper that we do so because creating a college place will not fix the issue; there must also be a matching clinical placement.

I am very pleased with the level of engagement we have had from the Department of Heath, particularly around medicine places. I expect to be in a position to finalise a significant increase in medicine places for this September. Better than that, we are also working to form a view on where we will get to over the next five years in terms of increasing medicine places to a sustainable level. Similarly, the Department of Health has been very helpful around nursing training and the work done by the chief nursing officer in this regard.

I am almost out of time. We are also doing some work on exactly what the Deputy referred to, that is, lifelong learning. We have people working in our nursing homes and caring for the most loved people in our lives, including our parents and grandparents, but we have often not academically recognised the brilliance of the work they do. Last week, we launched a new apprenticeship programme for healthcare assistants to enable them to get that recognition and to access a career pathway that may not have been available to them to date.

This is an issue we certainly will be revisiting into the future. I welcome the Minister's commitment in this regard.

I will do now what I generally do, which is to apologise and raise a related question. The question will not shock the Minister greatly. It is a specific question about technological university status for Dundalk Institute of Technology, DkIT, which he visited recently. I have had my own meetings lately at which I have heard some positive information in regard to criteria being met. However, there still are major worries. There have been a number of missteps and we know the route map will be through the provisions of section 38 of the Technological Universities Act 2018. We need to ensure it happens. The Minister probably has met those involved with the regional development centre and has seen the huge impact DkIT is having in regard to research, the whole M1 Border corridor area and also in regard to business innovation, including its involvement with Enterprise Ireland and all the other agencies. The one point everybody involved makes is the absolute necessity of ensuring DkIT reaches technological university status. Parents and students need that too.

Regarding workforce planning, will the Minister request the Taoiseach to convene a group of senior officials, led by the Minister's Department, that would pull together all the relevant Departments to target training in health and social care? It is really urgent that we join the dots between the provision of third level places and the workforce planning issue. It has not been done properly for many years and we are bearing the brunt of the consequences of that in terms of front-line staffing. The Minister said extra staff have been recruited by the Department of Health, but many of those staff are not front-line workers, although some of them are. With advances in medicine happening all the time, we will continuously need proper workforce planning, whether for 12 months or for three, five, ten, 15 or 20 years, if we are to get this right.

On workforce planning, it is a sensible suggestion to look at how we can better co-ordinate in this regard. I will reflect on how I can respond more fully to Deputy Conway-Walsh on that point. There is a level of engagement going on between my Department and the Department of Health that is quite intense and useful. There are other relevant Departments. I have spoken about this to the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, for instance, and the Minister of State with responsibility for disability services. There were times in this country when it was a funding issue that prevented an extra speech and language therapist from being hired. I am finding more and more, including in my own constituency, that this is no longer the case. The issue is the lack of an available trained person to take up the job. I will come back on the Deputy on her sensible suggestion.

I was expecting Deputy Ó Murchú to ask me about DkIT, which he does on a regular basis. To be clear, the north east must not be left behind and it needs a technological university. Of that there is no doubt. I visited DkIT briefly in recent weeks. I was pleased to have an opportunity to talk to Dr. Ruairí Nevin there, who is the expert adviser from the HEA. We have provided funding through the technological university transformation fund, TUTF. Between the funding and the expert advice, I am told progress is being made. Obviously, I will believe that when I see it and I must wait to receive the information and for the evaluation to take place. When any information is received, I want the Deputy and DkIT to know it will be treated with the utmost urgency and priority with a view to making progress. I will keep in touch with the Deputy on the matter.

Question No. 101 replied to with Written Answers.

Ukraine War

Joe Flaherty

Ceist:

102. Deputy Joe Flaherty asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science if he will provide an update on his Department's supports to assist Ukrainian people seeking access to third level education; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25280/22]

I raise the situation of Ukrainian students who wish to access third level and, indeed, fourth level education since arriving here following the invasion of their country on 24 February. How many have taken up places and what procedures is the Department putting in place to facilitate them and to ease the transfer?

I thank the Deputy for raising this important matter, which provides me with an opportunity to update the House. Since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, I have tasked my officials with finding ways to facilitate the continuing education of displaced Ukrainians coming to Ireland. I am determined, as I know the Deputy is, that these students will be given comprehensive and compassionate support. The Government believes it is essential that access to education is maintained.

I met with representatives of the higher education sector in early March to discuss their response to the situation. I established a national steering group, which is chaired by my Department and comprised of experts from across the sector. The group is overseeing the work of the national student and researcher help desk, which is a potential game changer in terms of streamlining our supports. It is a key element in our response and is acting as a single national contact point for displaced Ukrainian students and researchers looking to study here. We know that navigating the higher education system can be a challenge for anybody. Having one single contact point staffed by admissions officers and guidance counsellors from across the sector is important. It will assist students to make informed decisions about their continued education before the new academic year commences. I am pleased to inform the Deputy that there already have been 250 calls and emails to the help desk from students and researchers looking for assistance.

In addition, at the request of the Ukrainian Ministry of Education and Science, Ireland has committed to conducting the Ukrainian higher education entrance examinations this summer for students looking to access higher education in Ukraine.

My officials are engaging with their counterparts at the Ukrainian Ministry of Education and the members of the steering group on how best to facilitate this. My officials continue to monitor the situation and I meet them every Friday to discuss this matter. My Department stands ready to continue to put in place the necessary measures to ensure that we fulfil our commitment to those fleeing the war in Ukraine.

Being truthful, the immediate front-line response from my Department has been around the provision of English-language classes throughout the further education and training sector. There is a contact point for that now in every education and training board, ETB, in every county. As the crisis and war continue and the new academic year begins, we will see students from Ukraine who are now in Ireland beginning to take up places and others, whom I have spoken to, wanting to continue their linkages with their Ukrainian universities through remote learning. We will work with them and support them in doing both.

How many of the 250 contacts the Minister mentioned are likely to seek places? Is that information available? To broaden it out, can those who seek apprenticeships access that contact point? Will they be supported by the ETBs? Will the examination the Minister mentioned be the passageway to potentially beginning college in the next academic year for those Ukrainian equivalents of leaving certificate students who wish to go to college for the first time? What work has been done to facilitate that cohort of students to access third level places for the first time in their lives in September?

The short answer is "Yes". That is how we will help those people access the education system, either here or in Ukraine. A point I hear very strongly from the Ukrainian Government and people from Ukraine who are living in Ireland is one of wanting to maintain their connection with their education system. We even see at primary and secondary level that people want to continue to access Ukrainian schools, as well as maybe attending Irish schools. We are taking a very individual approach. That is the purpose of the helpdesk. Rather than a student going to a college or a one-size-fits-all model, the student has a conversation with this desk where the expert advice is and he or she will be guided. The student could be in third year of engineering in Ukraine. Is third year of engineering in Ukraine the same as third year of engineering in Ireland? If not, how do we map that out? I do not have an answer, nor does an answer yet exist, to how many of those students will end up taking up places. The numbers of calls has been relatively small so far. We are very satisfied and the sector is very satisfied that it will be able to accommodate people. The direct route for anybody looking to further education is the single contact point through a county team with regard to apprenticeships. This central point can direct or redirect people to supports in the ETBs.

Question No. 103 replied to with Written Answers.

Education Costs

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

104. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the measures that he intends to introduce to address student poverty and the shortage of affordable student accommodation; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25333/22]

The biggest contributor to student poverty is the extortionate cost of accommodation, whether it is private student accommodation built by investors or on-campus accommodation. We are talking well in excess of €1,000 per month in UCD or an even higher amount for some of the newer accommodation. Given that the Minister is giving €144,000 to developers per apartment, is there any chance of a subsidy from the State to bring down the cost of student accommodation to make it affordable and to do something about student poverty?

That is exactly what I am talking to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage about. However, I will come back specifically to the point about whether there is a version of that scheme which could be applied to the delivery of student accommodation in circumstances where there is clearly a gap between the market's ability to provide and what students and their families can afford.

I am committed to addressing issues relating to the cost of education that are affecting students and their families, including those who are disadvantaged or experiencing poverty. Obviously, the student grant is an absolutely critical support for students who receive it. I have already made a number of changes to the grant scheme to help alleviate financial pressures on thousands of students and their families with improvements coming in September. From the start of the academic year in September, all student grant maintenance payments will increase. More families will qualify through the income threshold increase, and a number of students will see their grants significantly increase, by 25% or more, as a result of change to the qualifying distance for the non-adjacent rate of grant, which is being reduced from 45 km to 30 km. It is critical that the student grant scheme continues to evolve to reflect the financial reality that affects learners. The Deputy is right. When we conducted the student grant review, it showed that the single-biggest cost facing students was accommodation.

The review also showed that is why student grants need to significantly increase. It has made a recommendation that they need to increase by 25% to be at a level that is fully impactful for our students. That is why I commissioned the review. It will inform future deliberations on the direction of the scheme. In addition to the student grant schemes, as the Deputy knows, students in third level institutions who are experiencing financial need can apply for support under the student assistance fund through its access office. It assists students, in a sensitive and compassionate manner, who might otherwise be unable to continue their third level studies due to financial circumstances.

With regard to accommodation shortages, I am very much aware of the difficulties faced by students in obtaining affordable accommodation. I am glad to report that there were 970 new higher-education-institution-owned, purpose-built student accommodation bed spaces completed in the past two years. Work is under way on site on a further 929 spaces. These bed spaces are institution owned as opposed to privately owned. As of December 2021, approximately 14,500 purpose-built student accommodation bed spaces were owned by higher education institutions. Shortages in student accommodation reflect a need to increase the supply of all types of accommodation, including student accommodation, and I am working with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage to see if there are some specific initiatives we can put in place to help colleges manage to build college-owned affordable accommodation. The Deputy raised an interesting point. Is there a way the State can subsidise bridging that cost in order that we can get our colleges building? A significant number of planning permission applications have already been approved for many of them.

The key point is that education is a right, not a privilege. I will go further and say it is now a societal imperative. In other words, every doctor, psychologist, apprentice, arts worker, scientist and engineer we get qualified is making our society better. We have a shortage of all of those people, and many others I am not mentioning, right across the board. It is the State's obligation, in its own interests and in the interests of the students, to remove barriers to progressing in education to the highest possible level. It is, in that context, frankly outrageous that in UCD we are talking about up to €14,000 in accommodation costs for the new builds. Even the lower stuff costs approximately €8,000. It is similar elsewhere. If a student has to access private accommodation, whether it is investor-built or other accommodation, the rents are extortionate. I will say a word about fees in a minute. Fees are also a considerable barrier. At the very least, we have to make accommodation affordable for students. Otherwise, a great number of students are put under extraordinary pressure and for some of them it is just impossible to proceed with their education.

We need to reduce the cost of education in range of areas. I have already outlined my views, which we will have a chance to discuss in a moment, on the registration fee, improving student grants and doing more on student accommodation. I will tell the Deputy about three specific actions we are taking. The first is that I wrote recently to all universities, technological universities and institutes of technology inviting them to put forward any local solutions. This is a departure from previous policy. They could identify an unused hotel or building that could be converted or modified to be college-owned student accommodation. We would help repurpose existing buildings that have not been used. There are vacant buildings throughout this country which could contribute to increased supply ahead of the next academic year. That remains an open invitation to all universities. We have received indications of interest already.

The second is that we have seen an increase in the number of higher-education-institution-owned, purpose-built student accommodation. I have already given the Deputy those figures. The Irish Universities Association reports that there are a further 3,500 beds either under construction or in planning for college-owned accommodation. With regard to the affordability piece, we changed the law in this House, specifically to try to help with affordability in terms of limiting the amount that a student can be required to pay up front. It was-----

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire.

Yes, but some of that purpose-built accommodation is completely unaffordable-----

-----and we have to do something about that.

On the fees front, I will make a point about a graduate entry medicine course that I heard discussed earlier. It is one thing for the Bank of Ireland to remove the loan, but people who we need to qualify as doctors should not have to take out a loan in the amount of €15,000 per year at all. We desperately need the doctors in our health service. It is madness to force them to pay €60,000. The latter means that working class people can forget about trying to become doctors. Even for people who might have a bit of money, €60,000 is crazy. It is self-defeating to put those kinds of barriers in the way of people who want to graduate in medicine, especially when we desperately need doctors.

I could say that about other allied health professionals too, but I do not have time. We should remove those fees.

I ask the Minister to reconsider bringing forward a new student accommodation strategy with affordability at its core. I acknowledge the different things he is doing, but we need a new student accommodation strategy to be able to tackle the extent of the problem we are facing. This issue cannot be separated from the issue of underfunding in higher education generally. Even on-campus accommodation was turned into another source of revenue for colleges to replace the public funding removed during austerity. It is not the fault of the individual institutions. These decisions were made at Government level. The on-campus accommodation charges nearly market rate because it is needed to cover the cost. It is used to attract the more lucrative students, to the point where some colleges give half of all on-campus accommodation to this relatively small body of students. We cannot build luxury accommodation. We have to build affordable accommodation for students.

The shortage of student accommodation is a widespread issue. Deputy Boyd Barrett referred to UCD specifically. The Minister of State, Deputy Collins, and I both know there is a shortage of student accommodation in Limerick. What are University of Limerick's plans to develop the Clare bank? It already has some accommodation on that, but there is a large land bank. Deputy Conway-Walsh spoke about the need to match third level places with the needs of industry. That is what the university hopes to do, to develop workspaces in conjunction with private industry, so that students can come out of university well-equipped and up-to-date, because skill sets change not even annually, but monthly, as the president of the university recently told me. I know the Minister may have an answer about the plans to develop that bank and I would like to know what those plans are.

I will do my best to address the three issues. The Government's position is not that graduate-entry medicine is the only route into medicine, which is important. We are talking about significantly increasing the number of medicine places, beginning in September. We ruled out student loans as a model to sustainably fund education. I said earlier that it is not about asking the bank to continue the loan indefinitely, but to remove the cliff edge while we come forward with public policy solutions.

We are changing the policy on student accommodation. I am trying to identify new solutions and I think that, once they are identified, a new or updated student accommodation strategy will be required. In response to Deputy McNamara, University of Limerick indicated that as part of its future campus planning, it is advancing an application for the designation of lands on the County Clare side of the campus, as an economic strategic zone. It has indicated to my Department that it sees potential for new and innovative models of teaching and learning through designation of a strategic development zone alongside its current campus. There will be a further deepening of engagement with industry. The close partnership between university and industry in the delivery of higher education could offer opportunities. I will give the Deputy a more substantive written reply.

How will students get there if there are no light rail plans and no northern distributor road? Is there scope for a supplementary question?

I was given a minute to answer the questions. It is quite hard.

It was really one question, with the other two being additional to it. The Minister did his best.

I appreciate that. I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for facilitating it.

Third Level Costs

Dara Calleary

Ceist:

105. Deputy Dara Calleary asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science if he will outline measures to improve funding supports for students in further and higher education, including an update on the review of the SUSI grant scheme and an update on the implementation group to look at the issue of future funding of our higher education institutions, grant supports and reform implementation; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25268/22]

The Minister recently made an announcement of substantial extra funding for third level education. He also committed to revamping the Student Universal Support Ireland grant scheme. I am interested in where we are with that and about its timeline. How will the extra funding he announced for third level address the problems that we have just discussed?

I think it will remove any excuses about universities needing to hike up student accommodation costs. The sector now agrees that €307 million is needed and if we provide that, we need to start to see fair play on a number of these important issues. The €307 million will drive down the student-staff ratio. It is about 19:1 or 20:1 in Ireland. The EU average is about 14:1 or 15:1. It will get us to the EU average and mean that we are funding higher education at a similar level to Sweden. It will mean we are investing €2,000 more per student, per year in their education. Five themes are set out for reforms, including access and better links between further education. I give the example of a nurse who does a post-leaving certificate course, PLC. We cannot have a situation where someone can do wonderfully well in a PLC in nursing and not get a place in a graduate course for a nursing degree. There are five themes for reform in the group chaired by Professor Anne Looney, Professor Tom Collins and I, which will meet for the first time next week.

Core funding is one part of the plan. The cost of education is another part. The Government has agreed to take a two-pronged approach, with a gradual reduction in the registration fee and a significant increase in the SUSI student grant scheme. We have outlined a number of things that need to happen with the SUSI student grant scheme, including making sure the grants increase more in line with the cost of living. The review reckons that the grants need to increase by 25% to get back to where they need to be. We also need to make decisions about funding part-time students under SUSI. We have started, in the budgets that we voted for, to increase student grants, reducing the distance that a student has to live from college to qualify for a larger grant and increasing the income threshold. I expect to be in a position to introduce another package of student supports in budget 2023 to improve SUSI further.

I thank the Minister. He has been in this House for long enough to know that money will not absolve people from not taking responsibility. We are good at throwing money at things, but we need to make sure that we get outcomes. What is the timeline to reduce the teacher-student ratio or lecturer-student ratio? The student contribution is currently €3,000 per annum. The Minister committed that it would be gradually reduced. Will that happen in this year's budget? Is he seeking support for that process to begin in this year's budget? Coming back to SUSI, a 25% increase is needed, and it will be higher as the year goes on and inflation rockets higher. Has the Minister a timeline in mind for that increase? What other reforms is he considering for this year's budget?

I am actively seeking support to reduce the registration fee. I welcome the support of the Deputy and everybody else on this because I believe €3,000 per year is too high. We could and should increase the grants, but there will always be people who we all represent who will not qualify for the grant. The €3,000 was brought in at a time of extraordinary difficulty in this country. If a family has two kids going to college at the same time, as many people do, there will be €24,000 in Government charges to get those two students through a four-year degree. I met students and parents in Longford recently and they were clear about this. The pace which we do this at, which we have to be honest about since we are part of a collective Government, is a matter for the Estimates process. This Government has three budgets left. I believe, looking at the figure of €307 million, that we can make extraordinary progress in closing that gap in the lifetime of this Government. Similarly, we can make progress on the SUSI review and the student registration fee. I have been a Minister for long enough to know that we cannot achieve everything in one budget, but in three budgets, now that we have the plan, the figures and the reform agenda, I genuinely believe that we can make significant progress on the registration fee, the grant and the core funding.

Could we anticipate a reduction in the student contribution fee or an increase in SUSI in 2023? It is important that we expand the available SUSI grant support. I am with the Minister on the student contribution. It is a fee. "Student contribution" is a silly, insulting phrase. It is a fee and it excludes many people from education. The same people are hit all the time. They may be working and cannot get support for anything. When it comes to investing in the family's education or their own education, they are blocked if they are working part-time. I ask the Minister to prioritise this. I know the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, will be more than open to this. He shares many of those aspirations. We have to send a signal that the macro-money, the €307 million, has been provided, but also that the concerns of students, parents and those funding their education are being taken seriously too.

I could not agree more with the Deputy. He has summed it up correctly. The core funding is key. We cannot rob Peter to pay Paul. We have to close the gap in the core funding of €307 million in the lifetime of this Government. We also have to make progress on the cost of education. We have published a Government policy that states we will, through successive budgets, increase grants and gradually reduce the fees. I would like to say more on that. That is the Government's position, so that is what we will do.

With my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, we did put it together. I think it was a €30 million package of student supports last year. We saw the SUSI grants increase for the first time in ten years last year. From September all the SUSI grants increase and quite a lot of changes are coming in to SUSI. I expect we will receive another pot of funding for student supports. How we divide that between registration fee changes and student grants will be a matter for the budget. I expect we will be in a position to show good form and good progress in this in budget 2023. The key thing will be for us to keep the momentum going during the lifetime of this Government and the three remaining budgets.

Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh na daltaí san Áiléar Poiblí. Tá sé tráthúil go mbaineann na ceisteanna le cúrsaí oideachais agus leis an Aire Breisoideachais agus Ardoideachais, Taighde, Nuálaíochta agus Eolaíochta . Guím ar an Teachta Boyd Barrett a cheist a chur trí Ghaeilge más mian leis.

Further and Higher Education

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

106. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science if measures will be taken as part of budget 2023 to ensure that all financial barriers for those wishing to undertake further education or apprenticeship courses are removed; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25334/22]

I do not know what school they are from but I was going to refer to the young people in the Visitors Gallery as well. I am not sure what year they are in but when they finish school, many of them will be looking to go to higher or further education or do apprenticeships. That would be good for them and also for our society because we need people in construction, medicine, the health service, in the arts and so on. However, we are putting barrier after barrier in the way of people actually getting in to third level or continue there. We should remove all financial, fee and other barriers.

I too welcome the students and thank them for being here. I want them to know that we are going to put an education system in place that means they can get to wherever they want in life. I urge them please to join in a conversation about broader educational opportunities, university, further education, apprenticeships - there are so many different ways of getting where they want to go. I thank them and welcome them to the Dáil.

A key priority for me, the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, and everybody in this House is reducing the cost of education. I hope my comments have not made the students leave. Maybe they have gone to sign up for the apprenticeships.

We have already taken action on the matters raised by Deputy Boyd Barrett. I am sure he will welcome it. We abolished the post-leaving certificate course, PLC, levy. There was a €200 per year levy to do a PLC course. We were telling people to go back to education and do a PLC course and then we were charging them for the privilege. We abolished the levy with effect from September. That has been welcomed across the sector. The Deputy will also know that we introduced for the first time ever a fund called "mitigating against education disadvantage". For the first time ever, we are providing funds to community education projects including in his own constituency and including laptops and sensory rooms. It funded over 500 projects in 2020 and 600 projects in 2021. We have made it a permanent part of the landscape.

We introduced apprenticeship bursary schemes targeted at supporting under-represented groups including female participation in apprenticeships. We will make further progress on this in budget 2023 in October. We are working to reduce and remove financial barriers. The Deputy is right that this is not just about the cost of living, although that is an important part. It is also about the skills needs of our country. I believe we can do more in the budget.

The Minister knows our position. We think we should get rid of all fees and all financial barriers. Now is the time for bold moves. We are facing chronic shortages in a number of areas such as construction, education, medicine and almost every area one can imagine. I want to ask about one particular group, though. There is a chronic shortage of psychologists and the result is real suffering, particularly for children with special needs. They cannot get assessments or services. We are putting shocking barriers in the way of people getting doctorates in psychology. Clinical psychology is partially funded but educational and counselling psychology are not. People doing doctorates which are necessary to qualify are paying extortionate fees of €11,000 a year and are having to work for free on placement. Their counterparts in clinical psychology are paid €36,000 a year. It is madness to put that barrier in their way.

As the Deputy knows, in respect of reducing financial barriers, we have already removed a number of them. We have increased student grants for the first time in a decade, meaning that many people will see their student grants increase by more than 25% in September. Also, when I became Minister, while the commitment in the programme for Government was not to increase the registration fee, we have now managed to publish a paper that commits to reducing it and increasing student grants. We are making policy progress on improving access and recognising education as a public good.

The issue of psychologists strays quite a bit from the question on further education and apprenticeships. However, I take the Deputy's point. The role of my Department is to work with line Departments such as Education or Health, which can bring forward ideas and proposals in terms of assistance they need from us in providing more college places and we respond. It is a matter for the line Department, be that Health or Education in respect of the specific issue of psychology. I am happy to look into the issue, talk to my colleagues and revert to the Deputy in writing.

The question is really getting at barriers. By the way, I think we should get rid of all apprenticeship fees for college, for the bit apprentices have to do in college. There is a campaign on that. I was asked by someone doing educational psychology to raise this so I am taking the opportunity.

I am happy the Deputy is doing so.

A Vision for Change recommended that we have 190 psychologists in the child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS. Currently we have 90, less than half of what was recommended more than a decade ago. There is real suffering for very vulnerable children as a result. Then we have people like Áine who wrote to me, and I have received multiple representations, who wants to do educational psychology. They are paying €11,000 in fees and have to work four days a week on placement doing this work but are paid nothing. To make a bad situation worse, they are working side by side with people who happen to be on clinical psychology courses who are being paid €37,000 to €40,000 for doing the same work and who do not have to pay fees. That inequity has to be addressed.

We spoke earlier about the overall cost of education. I take the Minister at his word that he is committed to third level education as a public good. That must mean something, particularly in respect of apprenticeships. The Minister outlined earlier efforts that were being made to tackle the backlog but it is not being done fast enough. When does the Minister project that we will have no waiting lists in apprenticeships? The cost of the extra waiting time is not only in terms of cost of accommodation and the fees that are involved but also in terms of not being paid what they should be paid. If a student was starting at Trinity tomorrow morning for a four-year degree course and then it turned out to be six years, there would be hell to pay. Why should it be any different for an apprentice?

I thank the Deputies. It is because of the importance and the sensitivity of the issue Deputy Boyd Barrett raises that I want to get him a more substantive reply than I have here. If he would like to send me Áine's correspondence I will certainly discuss that. My understanding on the issue of payment for placements is that it is a matter for a Department other than mine. The Deputy might still let me, as a member of Government, see if I can make progress for him on that and come back to him and to Áine with a more detailed answer.

In response to Deputy Conway Walsh, I do not mean this in any flippant or smart way but we need to have a common and shared understanding of what we mean by "waiting". As we increase the number of people coming in to apprenticeships, and we are seeing a massive increase, there will always be people who are waiting. I think what the Deputy and I both mean is people who are waiting longer than they should be. In respect of the people waiting longer than they should be, I expect during the course of this year for massive progress to be made in that regard. In fairness to my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, a large amount has been allocated in additional funding. There has been a lot of flexibility shown by the sector. A lot of it, although not all of it, does arise from the Covid backlog. It is not a lack of resources on our part because we are throwing more money than ever before at apprenticeships. It is so vital. It is requiring physical expansion to capacity and additional staffing as well.

Questions Nos. 107 and 108 replied to with Written Answers.

Apprenticeship Programmes

Christopher O'Sullivan

Ceist:

109. Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the way that apprenticeship training will help meet the targets of the new national retrofitting scheme; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25272/22]

I am taking this question on behalf of Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan. This is in respect of the targets of the national retrofitting scheme and comes back to some of the discussion around apprenticeships. There is a commitment to get an extra 2,600 places in the nearly zero energy building apprenticeship. What is the position with that target? Is the Minister confident it will be met?

I thank the Deputies for the question. A range of skills are needed to support delivery of the new national retrofit scheme, including general operatives, those with short retrofit-related courses, craft apprentices and those with professional qualifications in areas such as architecture and engineering. Consequently, education and training relevant to the skills needed for retrofitting targets are delivered across the full remit of the tertiary sector system, through mainstream education and training as well as through specific programmes such as Springboard, the human capital initiative and Skillnet Ireland.

Among the 65 apprenticeships available, retrofit activity is included in a range of construction-related programmes. Curricula are regularly updated to keep pace with changes in industry and regulations.

Recognising the diversity of skills required for retrofit and the variety of apprenticeships available, it is considered that current training options offer a more agile and effective way to meet labour and skills needs in a way that meets quality standards rather than requiring a dedicated apprenticeship programme.

In the further education and training sector, there are some 50 programmes in areas such as green skills and sustainability, which include retrofits and near-zero energy building, NZEB. The training opportunities are provided by the on-site retrofit programmes in centres of excellence in Laois–Offaly, Waterford–Wexford and Limerick–Clare education and training boards, ETBs. The Minister will open the latest NZEB centre in Limerick on Monday. We intend to open three more, including in Cork. We are really pleased to confirm that we have reached an agreement to open a new centre of excellence in Dublin also.

Ongoing innovation in delivery includes a move to a blended model of training in addition to the development of a pilot virtual-reality programme, which is expected to be operational by the end of the year. It is really important to change the perception. There is no retrofitting apprenticeship, as I stated, but there are courses available to men and women who work in construction-related trades currently. They can last between three days and three weeks.

The target of the national retrofitting scheme is 500,000 houses. It is an extraordinary target. It really needs a Marshall Plan effort to reach it given its complexity. We are nowhere near that. Is there a co-ordination point within the Department to ensure all the courses - the Minister of State mentioned a figure of 60 - are delivering the places we need?

A commitment was made at the beginning of February, at the launch of the national retrofitting scheme, to have 2,650 extra places on the NZEB apprenticeship course. That would bring us up to just under 5,000 by the end of this year. What is the position on that target? The commitment was given on 8 February and it is now 19 May. Are we further on in meeting the target? That is the first target that needs to be met. If it cannot be met, it gives me doubts as to whether we can do what is needed to reach 500,000.

I thank Deputy Calleary. This is of high priority. Our Department is engaged actively and proactively through each of our ETBs. There have been several reports arising from the work of the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs and also the work on having a zero-carbon economy. They have produced targets in respect of which we are trying actively to create awareness and ensure that all apprenticeships and course offerings meet, in their built-in modelling, our climate-action requirements, particularly in the retrofitting area.

The wider retrofitting programme, run by the Department of the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, will create a one-stop shop for roll-out and delivery. That is part of the linkages and liaison to assess demand.

I reiterate my call for a central point. Someone needs to take charge of this in the Department. The person should be co-ordinating all the activity to ensure somebody has the target in mind.

I note the list of centres the Minister of State gave in his initial answer. There is no centre planned for the west coast. It is all about the midlands. In the west, we have houses that need retrofitting too, and people need to be able to access the centres without considerable expense.

Could the Minister of State revert to me on our progress on places in the NZEB programme?

The ETBs are mentioned only twice in the national apprenticeship plan, which concerns me. I visited Ballina last week. Wonderful work is being done there on apprenticeships in electrical work, butchery and several other trades. We need an office for further education and training and apprenticeships to protect the integrity of the trades. I am really concerned about what I hear. We have a waiting list of 18 months to two years for the warmer homes scheme. We desperately need the skills but I am concerned about the integrity of the apprenticeship courses offered. We really need to manage this properly.

I take it that workshops take time in that refurbishment and procurement are required. We have to speed up the procurement process. We are in such an urgent position. It takes two to three years to go through the process. Could the Minister of State examine this specifically to speed up the process?

In reply to Deputy Calleary, an NZEB centre in Sligo is being worked on and is to be opened soon. On Deputy Conway-Walsh's concerns, we will talk to the national apprenticeship office.

Technological Universities

Gerald Nash

Ceist:

110. Deputy Ged Nash asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the steps that he and the Higher Education Authority are taking to progress the process of obtaining technological university status for Dundalk Institute of Technology; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24104/22]

The securing of technological university status for Dundalk IT is fundamental to the economic and social development of County Louth and the rest of the north east. As the Minister knows, there are only two institutes outside consortia: Dundalk IT, DkIT, and the Institute of Art Design and Technology, IADT. The Minister recently visited Dundalk IT, for which I thank him. I am somewhat reassured by the informal conversations he and I have had about the direction of travel. Could he formally update the House on the progress on technological university status for DkIT?

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter and arranging for me to meet members of the Teachers' Union of Ireland when I visited DkIT. I was delighted to do so and will be delighted to have a further meeting with them in due course.

As the Deputy is well aware, DkIT is currently pursuing a trajectory to achieve technological university status. Let me be very clear: the north east must not and will not be left behind when it comes to having a technological university. It is key to have university status in the north east. We know how we got here, and no one needs a history lesson about this. It is now about the future and getting this done. We now have circumstances in which the governing body, staff representative bodies, executive management team and student union all have the same vision. They all want the institute to become a technological university.

The Government and Department have provided financial assistance through the technological university transformation fund and we have appointed Dr. Ruaidhrí Neavyn as an expert adviser through the Higher Education Authority to help DkIT achieve the metrics required. I am delighted the institute is availing of those services and was very pleased to meet Dr. Neavyn when I visited DkIT.

Substantial progress has been made in delivering technological universities across the country. Every single application I received has been processed, allowing each applicant to become a technological university. DkIT's ambition to become part of a multi-campus technological university will require to be considered under the legislative approach prescribed in section 38 of the 2018 Act for the merger of an institute of technology with an existing technological university. It is a matter for any stand-alone institute to engage with an existing technological university on the merits of its incorporation.

Realistically, as three of the five technological universities have been established only since October last, it is required that these conversations take place directly with the institute and the other parties concerned. However, as soon as we receive any application or any progress on metrics from DkIT, we will proceed with the utmost urgency and support from the Government, my Department and all the Oireachtas Members in Louth, including Deputy Nash.

The Minister's preference is to have the relationships form organically. Every time I read about the creation of a new technological university in this country, my heart sinks. This is because Dundalk is isolated and has been left stranded. I see every announcement as a missed opportunity for DkIT and its students. The delays and obfuscation over the past few years have been inexcusable. In truth, there is a culture of impunity at the top of the college and, in my view, nobody is being held to account for the delays, which have been really damaging. It has been a bruising experience for the staff in DkIT, who have pioneered and campaigned very strongly to secure technological university status for DkIT. I acknowledge that the Higher Education Authority is very much involved in trying to move this process on. That is very important indeed.

I acknowledge that the DkIT metrics are good and going in the right direction. All the evidence suggests that DkIT would be a very strong partner in any consortium with technological university status. Could the Minister clarify for the House what his function is in this regard? Does he have a function in bringing individual parties together to include them in a consortium if no consortium or deal can be arrived at organically?

My legislative function is very clear in the Technological Universities Act. I have just started setting up technological universities right across the country. I am very eager that we deliver one for the north east. However, my actual function has been to provide funding and expert advice. This has resulted in much progress in respect of DkIT. I believe we will be in a position to make progress in the north east and genuinely believe we will deliver technological university status for the institute. The Deputy talked about missed opportunities. He will note that none of them lie with this House, the current Government or any previous Government, but we need to move on from them now. There is now a shared vision in DkIT for the first time ever, with staff, students, the management body and governing authority all saying the same thing.

We have the experts in there working on the metrics. My role is to bring people together, facilitate conversations, provide financial assistance and bring Oireachtas Members from Louth together. Maybe we could usefully do that before the summer recess.

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