General Scheme of the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (Consequential Provisions) Bill 2020: Minister with responsibility for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science

On behalf of the committee, I welcome the Minister with responsibility for further and higher education, research, innovation and science, Deputy Harris, and the Minister of State with responsibility for skills and further education, Deputy Niall Collins, and their officials to the meeting. I congratulate both Ministers and wish them the best of luck in their new roles. As Chairman of the committee, I look forward to working with both of them, their officials and their Department. I speak on behalf of all members of the committee.

The meeting will comprise two parts. Part one will be the briefing on parts of the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (Consequential Provisions) Bill 2020 under the remit of the Department with responsibility for further and higher education, research, innovation and science. Part two will be a discussion of the Department's key priorities, specifically, the effects of Covid-19 on the 2020 admissions, the reopening and delivery of courses in further and higher education institutes, future funding reforms at both levels to include apprenticeships and traineeships, and proposed national strategies for research, innovation and science.

The format of the meeting is that I will invite both the Minister and Minister of State to make brief opening statements, which will be followed by a discussion with members of the committee. As the Minister and Minister of State will probably be aware, the committee will publish the opening statements on the website following the meeting.

While the meeting is in two parts, to ensure absolute clarity I propose that members can ask questions on both parts together because of the time constraints involved. This is the most pragmatic way to ensure that all members get a reasonable amount of time to ask questions. If there is time at the end of the meeting, members can ask supplementary questions and I will accommodate everybody as fairly as possible.

It has been agreed that we have a rotation of speakers. Each speaker has six minutes to include the speaker asking questions and the Ministers responding. Then we will move on to the next member.

Before we begin, I remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside of the House or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I ask Ministers and their officials and all members to switch off their mobile phones or turn them onto airplane mode.

I invite the Minister, Deputy Harris, followed by the Minister of State, Deputy Collins, to make their opening statements.

I congratulate Deputy Kehoe on his appointment as Chairman of this committee, which covers not only education but also further and higher education, research, innovation and science. I am delighted to be here today and to be joined by my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Collins.

I am conscious that the most recent CAO offers, the so-called round four, came out approximately an hour and a half ago. I am also conscious that the class of 2020 has had an horrifically difficult year. I am confident that everything that could possibly have been done was done to make sure there was a pathway for them from secondary school to third level and that people were working in good faith in that regard. However, I also know it has been an extremely stressful period of time. I have been working closely with my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Foley. I promised last week to move mountains to make sure that any student who required an additional place or a new place as a result of the error in the calculated grades would get that place in this academic year. I am delighted to report to the committee that this has happened. Every single student who had an error in his or her calculated grades detected by the CAO has been offered a place to start this year by the CAO in round four this morning. While there will be much political scrutiny of calculated grades and all of that, and that is fair, right and proper in the Oireachtas, it is a moment to thank the higher education institutions which have worked incredibly hard to make this happen.

I have been struck by the level of collaboration among and by the can-do attitude of the Higher Education Authority, the CAO, the Irish Universities Association, IUA, the Technological Universities Association, THEA, the Technological University Dublin, TU Dublin, and all the staff in my Department who worked hard to make this happen as quickly as possible. I want to put that on the record of the committee as I am conscious that it is a timely matter and one that has just happened in the past hour or so.

The creation of my Department is a major opportunity for us to shine a light on issues that perhaps all too often do not get the attention they deserve. I am aware there is cross-party consensus on the creation of this Department on the basis that no matter who the Minister for Education and Skills is or who works in the Department of Education and Skills, these issues deserve their own Department. If we can couple further and higher education with research, innovation and science, we potentially have the opportunity to achieve something really good here. I sincerely look forward to working with every member of this committee in a collaborative, bipartisan manner to try to get as much done as we possibly can.

There are two aspects to the Department. There is the economic aspect in terms of making sure we future-proof the economy and produce the skills and the research, which is all very important but, equally important, and not to be seen as the poor relation, is the social inclusion element. There is still educational disadvantage in this country. It is neither right nor proper for that to be the case, particularly when I meet Pavee Point and others who have been rightly highlighting issues which, in my view, have not been addressed in recent years or when I meet Down Syndrome Ireland and the only conversation adults of 18 years of age with Down's syndrome are having is what day-care places they would like the HSE to provide. It is not right that 55% of people in this country lack basic digital skills and that 16% of adults lack basic reading skills. There is a significant issue when we talk about the knowledge economy. People are getting left behind and I think there is a chance through pathways in community education, further education and higher education to get things done.

We must drop the snobby attitude in this country. I was struck by the op-ed by the provost of Trinity College on this issue. If he is writing about it, we should really pay attention. I refer to the idea that everyone must be funnelled straight from secondary school to university. It is not on and it is not right. We are behind the curve regarding apprenticeships and other such approaches. I look forward to working with all members of the committee on developing a literacy skills strategy, a new apprenticeship action plan and on breaking down the barriers. I am sure we will not agree on everything, but I hope there will be lots we do agree on and that we can work on them.

I have been asked to comment today on key issues relating to the Brexit legislation. I will not dwell on it too long because I think the committee will be quite familiar with it. There are fewer than 100 days to the end of the transition period. We are focusing on our readiness in that regard. That will require new legislation to underpin the readiness measures. Members will recall that last year, 2019, the Brexit omnibus Act was enacted. This Act sought to provide contingency measures to address issues arising in a no-deal, cliff-edge scenario. As the withdrawal agreement was concluded, the majority of the provisions in the 2019 Act cannot now be commenced so we need a new Bill. The proposed 2020 Bill is intended to deal with the permanent change that will arise at the end of the Brexit transition period. It forms a vital part of our national Brexit readiness preparations and it tries to deal with a range of complex issues in terms of how we do our business in a post-Brexit world.

From our perspective, the matter that is of particular interest to this committee relates to the treatment of Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, grants. The provisions in the legislation are essentially of a technical nature so that is the reason I do not intend to dwell on them. I do not think there will be much disagreement. Grant assistance for students participating in further and higher education is provided for under the student grant scheme and student support regulations, which are published under powers contained in the Student Support Act 2011. The student grant scheme is administered by SUSI and it provides grants to students who meet the prescribed conditions of funding, including those relating to nationality, residency, previous academic attainment and means.

A number of provisions contained within the 2011 Act and the associated regulations will be affected by Brexit and therefore they need to be amended before 1 January 2021 when the transition period ends. Part 7 of the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (consequential provisions) Bill 2020 will make the necessary amendments to the Student Support Act 2011. The key amendments proposed are in respect of definitions regarding approved institutions, approved courses and student interpretation. As colleagues will know, under the current legislation, eligibility regarding approved courses and institutions is limited to courses and institutions located in member states. The proposed changes will widen the definitions post-Brexit to encompass the UK as a third country. Each year, approximately 1,500 students studying in the UK and approximately 200 UK nationals studying in the State, qualify for SUSI grant support. We want that to be able to continue but, without the proposed amendments these students will not meet the current statutory-based eligibility criteria. The provisions in Part 7 of the Brexit omnibus Bill will address the problem by amending the Student Support Act to enable students to continue to qualify for grant support post Brexit. That is the Brexit part.

Regarding key ministerial priorities, again I will not dwell on this too much because I think we will have a chance to pick it up during the interactions. I acknowledge that the Department was the brainchild of the Taoiseach, Deputy Micheál Martin. I know it is something he championed throughout his political career. He feels very strongly about it and so do I. I do not think the establishment of this Department could come at a more important time. The pandemic has upended the lives of so many people. People have had to rethink their assumptions and their futures. They may have lost their jobs or they may be in need of a new direction. This Department has a responsibility to give people the best possible chance of a good future through education, either by providing a solid and resilient further or higher education foundation, or by helping people get back to work, reskilling and retraining. We have started the work through the 35,000 additional further and higher education places provided as part of the July stimulus package. As recently as yesterday, I announced a new Skillnet programme whereby we will retrain or reskill people who have lost their job as a result of Covid-19, in particular those who have lost jobs in hospitality and retail. It is expected that 2,000 people will benefit from this initiative by the end of the year.

As colleagues know, we launched a new apprenticeship scheme and for the first time ever we will provide a financial incentive to any business that takes on an apprentice. The good news is that since we launched the scheme this summer more than 800 people have taken up the opportunity and we plan to do much more in that regard. There is also much more to do in the area of apprenticeships. We must continue to upskill and learn and recognise that it is about lifelong learning. Learning is not like riding a bike. It is a muscle that we constantly need to exercise and use.

We also need to future-proof the economy and ensure people have the right skills to protect the workforce. The Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, will drive the agenda in the Department. We met with the regional skills fora yesterday in this regard to consider the skills needs required in each part of the country.

The other equally important twin driver of the Department is to promote social inclusion. We must ensure that every individual, regardless of where they come from, who their parents are, what their parents do or what their gender is, has an opportunity to reach his or her full potential through a variety of education and training routes supported by the right access interventions. As a country, we have made a lot of progress in recent years, but we are nowhere near where we need to be. We have a lot more work to do in that regard.

It is time for a bit of blue-sky thinking. We will come up with ideas that people will say could never be done. People told Donogh O'Malley he could not achieve what was subsequently achieved in the context of secondary education. We need to be ambitious in this area. We have a significant amount of work to do. I have highlighted the area of literacy which I think is key. I acknowledge Deputy Ó Ríordáin has championed that, and I want to work with him on it because we cannot ensure people can take part in the economy and in society if we do not get this right. We will publish our first ever national adult literacy, numeracy and digital skills strategy in six months' time.

I would like to talk about Covid, which I reckon will come up in the exchange, so I will not waste time on that now, but we have taken a number of interventions to protect students, staff and the quality of education during this time. We have more to do in that regard. Within my first few weeks of taking office, we have made changes to the student support scheme for people living in direct provision.

We introduced mandatory consent classes for incoming students. I hope that is an area this committee could examine. The level of sexual violence that is still being encountered by people in third level institutions today is really shocking. There are still dinosaurs and they come in different ages, shapes and sizes and they need to be called out. There needs to be a zero-tolerance approach to sexual violence. I need the committee's help in that regard as well.

We secured Government approval to go to tender for the PPP bundle of 11 major capital projects in the technological university and institute of technology sector. The technological university agenda will be a major priority of ours as well. In the research space, there is a significant amount more to do on a regional basis and a North-South basis. I am meeting with the president of Queen's University this week and I am due to meet my counterpart in Northern Ireland this month. We need to do more on an all-island basis. I am interested in working with the committee on that too.

We need to review the SUSI scheme, which is a key commitment in the programme for Government. Many members have and will highlight shortcomings in the SUSI scheme. It is a good scheme but it needs to be updated to reflect where we are at now. I want to work with members on that as well. That is just a brief whistle-stop tour of some of the issues. I look forward to answering the questions of members.

I thank the Minister very much for an enlightening opening statement. When members are asking questions I ask them to step forward towards a microphone. They might have to change seats in order to do so.

I welcome the two Ministers and thank them for engaging with the committee. I also welcome the comments of the Minister on the CAO process. Despite all the difficulties we had in implementing the system this year it still must be recognised that this year there will be more people getting their first choice than in any other year.

That must be said as it is not often heard.

I welcome the comments about apprenticeships. I was a teacher in a DEIS school for over ten years and I suppose there is a message that a person does not need to aspire to a third level or master's degree and there are plenty of other choices for people. That should be reinforced time and again, so I welcome those comments.

I will focus on the Brexit aspect of today's briefing. Brexit and the exit of the UK from the EU poses significant risks and challenges to us here in Ireland. However, in every difficulty there is also opportunity and in 2021, Ireland will be the only English language-speaking nation in the EU, which will undoubtedly serve us well in attracting thousands of international students to our shores. Not only that but significant opportunities will present in terms of attracting other academics and staff from UK-based universities. There is much to be optimistic about when it comes to the opportunities that may be presented to us by Brexit.

That said, Brexit poses a number of significant challenges for us. In 2017, the number of Irish applicants hoping to study in the UK fell by 31%. The figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service in the UK for 2018 and 2019 suggest that EU applicants as a whole to the UK are down by approximately 7%. The decline in both Irish and EU student applications is undoubtedly connected to Brexit. Ireland only represents 9% of the applications from the EU to third level institutions in the UK where it previously would have represented approximately 15%. The decline in the numbers is clearly connected to Brexit.

My concern is that these consequences will place greater pressures on us at home to educate third level students. Funding for Irish universities has increased in the past few years but almost a decade of cuts has undermined the sustainability of the higher education system in Ireland. A deficit in funding for the sector is a significant challenge. Despite a significant increase in third level students, leaving their number at an all-time high, the higher education sector in Ireland remains dramatically underfunded.

That said, there is opportunity for Ireland in that nearly 2,500 academics from EU countries have resigned their positions in UK universities in the past few years. Will the Minister clarify if the UK will remain in the EU research programmes post-Brexit? In 2017, the UK received over 15% of EU framework programme awards, as well as 20% of all European Research Council awards. Will the Minister comment on what opportunities exist for us in Ireland to attract a portion of that investment?

Will the Minister also comment on the Erasmus programme? The aim of this programme is not solely educational and it is also about promoting integration and mobility between EU countries. In 2018 the UK received almost 30,000 EU students on Erasmus programmes, so will the Minister also comment on the efforts being made to attract this cohort of students to Ireland?

I thank the Deputy for raising these matters and for acknowledging that we have put many extra places into the college system. It is our job to keep those places as we know the demographic pressures that will come on this sector. I welcome his comments on apprenticeships and we could do with learning from the Deputy's expertise on the matter.

The Deputy is correct in his comments on Brexit. Overwhelmingly, Brexit will be negative for this island and the European Union but we must look for any opportunities we can find in that very difficult environment. The attraction of international students is one, although the pandemic has put the cat among the pigeons. As we move beyond it, we will have a new international students strategy and will consider what the future of a sustainable model for international students in our country will look like. The benefits of international students range beyond the monetary, and it is about diversity in education as well.

There will be a chance to reboot the North-South relationship and do much more with it. For example, I am excited by proposals from Science Foundation Ireland that we could have a cross-Border research centre on infectious diseases, and what an incredible dividend that would bring to public health learning and North-South relations. The members have heard me speak about cross-Border universities and the idea that we would work on an all-island basis if such universities did not recognise borders. I have chatted to Deputy Conway-Walsh about some of these ideas and I have no doubt we will do that again.

We have more work to do on the Erasmus programme. My first priority is to ensure every student in Northern Ireland, who has a right to be Irish and be European, can continue to access the Erasmus programme. Just before coming to this committee hearing, I signed off on a proposal in that regard and I will consult with Government colleagues on that. The proposal is that we would continue to provide access to Erasmus programmes for students in the North.

I have had meetings with the UK science minister on the research piece. It is fair to say the UK is continuing to negotiate on where it will fit. I hope it remains a part of the EU research infrastructure but even if it does not, we must look at how we could strengthen our bilateral relationships. I want to maximise how we draw down on international funds and opportunities for research. This will involve putting more boots on the ground, to be frank, locating more people in Brussels and working with European institutions. My new Department will be doing quite a lot in that regard.

The Minister had four seconds to spare. I ask members to be aware of the time as I want to be fair so everybody gets their allotted time.

I will take those four seconds. I share the Minister's vision and very much look forward to working with him on all the topics mentioned in his statement. I know he understands there are a number of pressing questions I must ask.

The first concerns the 8,000 students who did a leaving certificate in 2018 and 2019 who were severely disadvantaged because the CAO access points increased so drastically for subjects. The Minister knows, for example, that the early childhood care and education course at the Technological University Dublin increased by 24 points. What has the Minister done to create a level playing field for those students? What does he say to those leaving certificate students who have now been left at home with no college place?

I look forward to working with the Deputy as well. I am very conscious that this pandemic disadvantaged every peer group. The Deputy could quite rightly point to the students of 2020, who have gone through a very stressful year, as have the 2019 students. I will not use the Deputy's time but I took legal advice on the matter. It was not possible, according to that advice, to ring-fence places for the 2019 students. Therefore, the best legal and operational route available to me was to massively expand, at an unprecedented level, the number of available college places. That resulted in many more people getting into college. I accept that the Deputy could point to examples from the 2019 or 2020 class, as well as previous years, where people did not get a place.

The then-Government was not the first party clamouring for the leaving certificate to be cancelled and there was almost a cross-party consensus that the leaving certificate examination could not take place. We had to respond to that on the grounds of public safety and we put in place the very best possible system.

We cannot have it every way. I am confident we have the most robust system possible but I am very conscious of the individual impact it has had on people.

As well as the 6,100 students who got upgrades last week, there are many more thousands who were squeezed out of places in preferred courses because of errors in the algorithm that led to 7,943 people being awarded a higher place. What plans does the Minister have for those students and how can he ensure fairness, even at this late stage, for them? There is a cohort of such students, and both the Minister and I probably know some of them who are sitting at home now, feeling very disadvantaged with a real sense of injustice and unfairness.

I noted the Deputy's statement last week, when she rightly put it to me in a very reasonable and constructive way to provide places and ensure every student who was wrongly downgraded by the calculated grades error got a place. They did. Maybe we would have a different conversation if they did not.

The Deputy is making a point that is not unreasonable, which is that some students got an upgrade. The very honest view was delivered by the chief inspector at last week's press conference at Marlborough Street, which was that we have a long-standing precedent in this country, which is decades old, that nobody gets downgraded. Short of rerunning the entire process, which nobody would advocate, there is no way of determining the impact.

The Government, in a pandemic, thought this to be the fairest system. Is it perfect? No. I am encouraged, however, that more people than ever before got places and more people got their first choice. With the latest error that we had to deal with, and to which we do not expect to have to respond, we still managed to get everybody in. There is a precedent that a person cannot be downgraded.

I am not asking about people getting downgraded. There are many people in the middle who did not get upgraded or who got a text to say they were not affected. They are sitting at home in a really bad state.

I do not want to use the Deputy's time but she has said people are sitting at home in a really bad state. We should focus on that. I say to people that there are so many routes to getting where they want to go. We need to be able to promote and highlight that.

More people are starting university this year than in any previous year. On top of that, there are many other routes for students to get to where they want to go. I was talking to a student who missed out on UCD by a few points last year, did one year in further education and training and got into UCD in round zero this year. In a pandemic year I would encourage those students to look at the full range of options available to them.

Thousands of students and parents have paid very substantial sums of money for accommodation they will now not use. What is the Minister doing to ensure those parents and students get their money back?

My colleague, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, met with the Union of Students in Ireland, USI, on this important issue. I can assure the committee that the USI is also engaging regularly with me on this matter. There are two parts to the question and the answer. One cohort of students lives in college-owned accommodation. My very clear message to colleges is that I expect refunds to be issued in those cases. I do not need to lecture that sector on that, if members will pardon the pun. The authorities are already taking action. Administrators at NUI Galway and the University of Limerick have said that if students do not use the accommodation, they will get a refund. That should happen-----

It is important they give that money back quickly.

I fully agree. I know the Deputy will agree that the private providers need to show a bit of decency. I will continue to work with the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government on that.

I would appreciate that. Some 12,300 students have appealed their grades. Some of them will have been upgraded following corrections but some will not. When will students have the results of those appeals? Is the Minister confident that there are enough places for successful appeals or successful outcomes to any of the court cases currently under way?

Appeals are a matter for the Department of Education and Skills, but I understand that process is due to conclude this month. I know everyone would like to conclude it as quickly as possible. I do not have a specific date but the Department of Education and Skills may be able to provide one. My job and that of my Department is to provide people with places if they make successful appeals. We will go through exactly the same process we go through every year to make sure that anyone who has lodged a successful appeal gets an offer, ideally this year. On the basis of the process I have just gone through I am very optimistic that there is a real willingness and ability to do that. However, I do not yet know the outcome of that process.

Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire will ask the rest of the questions.

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Harris, and the Minister of State, Deputy Collins. I welcome the creation of the new Department of further and higher education, research, innovation and science. I previously worked at NUI Galway, Enterprise Ireland and Science Foundation Ireland. I very much appreciate the importance of research and innovation, linked with third level education, to drawing foreign direct investment and industry to Ireland.

I welcome the update and the detailed information the Minister has provided. I also welcome the recent announcement of extra places in the Skillnet Ireland and Skills Connect initiatives. More than 300 businesses have engaged with that. Regarding apprenticeships, as the Minister said, it is very important to highlight the other opportunities available to students. More than 2,000 students will resit their exams in November and it is very important that all students realise there are opportunities to earn and learn as an apprentice or to do things in further education.

I was very happy to hear the recent announcement of funding for technological universities. This is of huge importance to regional areas. The Connacht-Ulster Alliance is to receive €5.7 million, allocated to the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, IT Sligo and Letterkenny Institute of Technology. Right beside where I am based in Ballinasloe, the consortium of Athlone Institute of Technology and Limerick Institute of Technology was also awarded €5 million. I would like to ask the Minister about the timeline for the submission of applications for those technological universities and when they will be formed. It is important to understand the real need to attract investment and industry to regional areas, particularly those areas with regional transition status.

I thank Senator Dolan. I feel a bit inadequate answering her question having been reminded of her impressive CV in these areas. I look forward to working with her. The Senator and I have spoken about the apprenticeship issue before. Finance is an important aspect and the funding has been widely welcomed, but it is only one piece of this. I accept that we need to do more. The apprenticeship action plan we are due to bring to the Government by the end of the year must also look at the other things we have to do. To be very honest, some of the issues are cultural. We need to look at that. I would hope that when we have an advance copy of the plan or the complete plan - whatever the committee wishes - we could engage in some detail on what a successful apprenticeship action plan would look like.

Technological universities are potential game changers for regions. Senator Byrne and I have spoken about the Technological University for the South East and Senator Dolan has referred to the Connacht-Ulster Alliance. I am delighted that we have been able to provide funding to help these projects happen. I understand the Connacht-Ulster Alliance consortium is hoping to make an application by the end of the year. Once an application is lodged with me, the legislation says I have four months to appoint an international review group and then the process takes off. We have one up and running in Dublin and another is due to open in Munster. The next two big ones will be the Technological University for the West and North West and the Technological University for the South East. I think they can be game changers and I really look forward to rolling them out. They will be a major political priority for me in Government.

As I have said, research and innovation is crucial. The streamlining of further and higher education into universities and institutes through the national framework of qualifications, NFQ, levels is important for the Irish Universities Association, IUA, and third level institutes. I would very much like to know the Department's position on the funding for the European Research Council, ERC, under Horizon Europe. It is crucial that agencies such as Science Foundation Ireland and Enterprise Ireland are able to access European funding to attract the best brains to Ireland. We must also retain the talent in Ireland. The ERC is seen as a groundbreaking way of attracting talent from across the world. It is also one of the important innovation factors bodies such as IDA Ireland, the State organisation for attracting investment to Ireland, can point to. The amazing research teams that are breaking ground in many areas, including healthcare, medtech and pharmaceuticals, will attract investment here. I would like to understand the Department's position on supporting investment in innovation and research to attract investment to Ireland, and its support for Horizon Europe.

Ireland is doing very well out of European research funding. In recent days we passed the milestone of €1 billion in net contributions from Horizon 2020. That is a real credit to the research community and ecosystem that exists in Ireland. I want to acknowledge that. Really transformational stuff is happening there. The Covid-19 pandemic made the benefits of research very practical and a lot less abstract for all of us as we go about our lives. We need to build on that further. Being very honest, as I have said when engaging with stakeholders, it has been a bit siloed to date. Perhaps the job of my new Department is to pull all of these concerns together. The successor strategy to Innovation 2020 is due shortly. That will be an opportunity to look at research across the full spectrum, taking note of the economic benefits and the societal good that can come from research. Until the creation of this Department, the Irish Research Council was under the aegis of the Higher Education Authority. Science Foundation Ireland was a part of the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation. Institutes of higher education were autonomous. This is a chance to pull all of this together. If we do that, the result will be greater than the sum of its parts. My first objective is to draw up a successor strategy to Innovation 2020 that is comprehensive and pulls everybody together.

I am a little concerned about the amount of funding proposed in the overall budget at a European level. I hope the European Parliament will be able to work on that. I would like to see Ireland engage even more energetically at an international level through the OECD, international fora and organisations, and at a European level. This is key to foreign direct investment. When it comes to the jobs of the future, investors will be asking more and more about the research ecosystem in a region or country.

I thank the Minister. NUI Galway recently provided a very good example in the form of its translational medical device lab. One of the youngest ever winners of an ERC starting grant is based in NUI Galway and works with medtech companies in the Galway region and University Hospital Galway. This research developed a product for sharing ventilators. The Galway VentShare project is now up for an award. This really shows how investment in research and industry has an impact on our community, society and economy. Even in this time of immense crisis and need, investment in research and innovation works for Ireland.

I thank the Minister and the Minister of State for coming in and giving an excellent and very informative presentation. I want to echo comments on the importance of the creation of this new Department. I am very gladdened to hear the Minister emphasise further education because it is very often overlooked. I was also glad to hear the Minister state so clearly that there are many pathways for people to progress.

That is extremely important and I am very heartened to hear that emphasis.

I want to focus first on the Brexit element of the presentation and drill down into the data on student numbers. There are 200 UK students in receipt of SUSI grants. Does that capture the full number of UK students choosing to attend college in the Republic? I ask the Minister to provide more details on fees. At the moment non-EU students pay far higher fees. Will that apply to UK students or will they be given a dispensation and allowed to attend at EU fee levels?

I thank Deputy Ó Cathasaigh. On further education, it is not by accident that it is in the title. This Department was briefly, for about 24 hours, called the Department of higher education, research and innovation or something like that but it must be further and higher education and we need that to be seamless.

On Brexit, my understanding is that the figure of 200 refers to those studying who qualify for the SUSI grant. Of course, that number can go up and down. It does not capture the totality of UK students, just the totality qualifying. On fees, what we are trying to do is maintain the status quo. We are trying to make sure that the relationship that is currently in place does not change.

I welcome the fact that those affected by the error in the calculated grades process and who received an upward grade revision have been accommodated on college courses. I echo the concerns expressed by Deputy Conway-Walsh for the 2018-19 cohort of students. I am sure every one of us has a story of a constituent who would have made the grade in previous years but who has now fallen short by a very slim margin. If anything can be done for such people, that would be very welcome.

On the costs of attending third level in the new Covid-19 environment, good work has been done to try to close the digital divide in terms of funding hardware but I have a question regarding software. Software for particular courses in subjects like design, for example, can be very expensive. As I understand it, software providers were very accommodating in the last term and much of their very valuable software was provided free of charge in that interim period but that situation no longer pertains. We are closing the digital divide to some degree by funding hardware for third level students who are now, for the most part, attending college remotely. Are we also providing funding for software to allow students to participate fully in their courses?

There are three elements to the connectivity cost. We cannot just tell people to study online and leave them at it; we obviously need to support them. The first step is buying the hardware and the Deputy has acknowledged that spending. Approximately 17,000 laptops have been purchased and distributed. That has gone well but we need to continue to do more on that front, including in further education. We are using the student assistance fund to provide funding for students who have a connectivity issue. I have met students who said that it is grand to receive a laptop but they cannot access the Internet. We have made it very clear that the student assistance fund can be used to provide dongles and other devices that people might need. I also want to explore further the possibility of developing community hubs so that if the Covid-19 situation becomes more medium-term than we would have liked, students will be able to continue to learn in their communities.

On software, my understanding is that the €168 million Covid-related funding that we have provided to the third level sector is for things like licensing costs and so on. I am meeting representatives of HEAnet this afternoon and will check that for the Deputy but it is my understanding that those costs are encompassed in the Covid costs. If they are not covered or if the universities have an issue with software, I will address it.

I would like the Minister to follow that up because I am hearing reports from lecturers that it may be an issue.

If the Deputy sends me the details, I will check it out.

I strongly welcome the apprenticeship action plan. It is important to acknowledge the decades-long tradition of Irish tradespeople being welcomed all over the world because the quality of their apprenticeship training was so high. I will refer briefly to the town centres first policy that is written into the programme for Government. If we are to revitalise the centres of our towns and villages, there will be huge demand for people with heritage crafts and skills. In that context, I urge the Department to engage with the Minister of State with responsibility for heritage, Deputy Noonan. If we are developing a new range of apprenticeships, we should also consider heritage apprenticeships in areas like food and heritage buildings. If we are to revitalise our towns and villages, there will be a need for particular skill sets and there are huge opportunities there. There are also opportunities in the retrofitting space. Heritage skills could be put to very good use in terms of unlocking the older housing stock. I urge the Department to include that in its work programme.

The apprenticeship action plan has been drafted and is out for public consultation. I encourage members to make a submission, through their parties or as individuals. All submissions are welcome and will be seriously considered. One of the stated goals of the Department is to expand the range of apprenticeships available. As the Deputy knows, there are 56 at the moment, including the traditional trades to which he referred. We must try to ramp up the different sectors within which apprenticeships can and should be offered. Furthermore, there is a huge gender gap in the apprenticeship sector, as we all know. Recent figures indicate that only 4% of those engaging in apprenticeships are women, which is a shocking statistic. A major part of our focus in the apprenticeship action plan will be on ensuring that we get more balanced gender participation. I will take up the Deputy's suggestion with regard to the Minister of State with responsibility for heritage. I am open to correction but I think the OPW offers apprenticeships in stone masonry which would be allied to heritage work to some degree.

I thank the Minister and Minister of State for their presentations. I hope to speak on a number of issues, some of which are areas of agreement while others are potentially areas of disagreement. I will start with areas of agreement. I was impressed with the Minister's presentation on the issues of literacy and apprenticeships. Statistics on the levels of education among prisoners, for example, are disturbing. Two studies in recent years showed that half of our prisoners have a junior certificate qualification or lower. The Minister spoke about the high rate of functional illiteracy in Ireland which is one in six, meaning that around 18% of Irish adults are functionally illiterate. That level represents an improvement in recent years but it is still disturbingly high. The Minister spoke about members of the Traveller community and people with disabilities. I work with the Professional Football Association of Ireland, PFAI, which has told me that one third of League of Ireland footballers have only a junior certificate as their highest qualification. I ask the Minister to work with the Opposition on the issues of literacy and apprenticeships. Is there potential for us to work together on the establishment of a national literacy agency, as suggested by the National Adult Literacy Agency, NALA? This would bring together all of the components, which are in eight or nine Government Departments, and put them into one single agency that could drive the issue of literacy across the board, including child, adult and family literacy. Two Private Members' Bills were introduced in the previous Dáil, one from the Government and the other from the Opposition, to provide for plain language in public documents to make them much more accessible. Often those who need public documents most are in the cohort of people with lower literacy levels. I ask the Minister and Minister of State to comment on those points first.

I genuinely acknowledge the amount of work done by the Deputy on literacy and adult literacy in particular. This is a major issue. All of us have personal experience in our families and communities of how this can be a real barrier to participation. When we talk about basic literacy, we are talking about people not being able to read a Panadol box. and in terms of basic numeracy, we are talking about people not being able to understand their ESB bills. This is locking people out and it is becoming intergenerational. It is a real problem.

I have responsibility for prisoner education and intend to focus on that as well. We cannot be serious about rehabilitation if we are not serious about breaking cycles of deprivation and lack of educational attainment. I am very interested in that area. I would sincerely love this committee to focus on the issue of literacy.

I have an open mind on the legislative change. I have got Government approval to chair an interdepartmental group on literacy, numeracy and digital skills and I will chair my first meeting of it with next week, so we will see where that brings us. I am conscious even in recent days of plain language. The State needs to start copping on because we are sending out volumes of information to people and I find I often have to read it two or three times to take it in, so we need to practice what we preach as a Government. I will be happy to work with the Deputy on that.

I appreciate the Minister’s comments there. On the leaving certificate, I am glad the Minister acknowledged that not everybody in the Opposition or across society was advocating for the scrapping of the written leaving certificate examinations because the Labour Party was not. We are advocating for independent investigation into what happened this year in order that it cannot be repeated next year. Rather than that being a point of contention between us, will the Minister speak on next year’s cohort and what they may go through if there is an issue regarding the sitting of a written leaving certificate examination next year? There are 60,000 students in sixth year this year who are worried about the potential for a repeat next year. Can the Minister give some level of comfort to them that lessons have been learned from this summer that will not be repeated next summer if it comes to the point where the same decision has to be made? We all hope it does not come to that point but some level of reassurance from the Government that lessons have been learned from this summer would be welcome because sixth year students are watching this very carefully.

I do not wish to encroach on the space of the Minister for Education and Skills but as a member of the Government and somebody whose Department has a direct role in what happens after the leaving certificate examination, we may not disagree as much as the Deputy thinks in this regard. We might disagree on what we call it but the idea that we would not review and learn in relation to this year’s calculated grades would be bizarre to me. I do not speak for the Minister, Deputy Foley, but I am quite sure there will be an openness in the Government to making sure that any lessons that need to be learned are learned. This was done in real time and in crisis mode and people worked in good faith but one would be pretty stupid not to review it and see what went well, what did not go well and what needs to go better.

From my perspective, my job is to make sure that when a leaving certificate result, however it comes about, is processed and given to the Central Applications Office, CAO, that we have the maximum number of opportunities for people. One of the challenges, to which I am sure the Deputy will hold me to account, is that we have greatly expanded the number of places in college this year. That helped a lot. These are not just numbers; they did get more people into college. We need to try to make sure we do not create a bubble effect next year. There are budgets coming up and so on but I need to try to maximize the number of places available for the class of 2021. I assure them that is what I will do.

Will there be a recommendation going to all higher education institutions that they should move online this semester? Second, a cohort of students is moving into student accommodation because they have attendance requirements for their courses and do not have sufficient broadband at home. Will the Minister give some guidance or give us some comfort that he will be giving guidance to higher level institutions that there will be understanding in that regard and that attendance requirements being online or in person will be relaxed? This will mean students will not have to make decisions that will be extremely costly because of the quality of the broadband they have at home, their inability to have remote access to lectures and the cost of accommodation. We hope the Minister will work with the third level institutions to iron these issues out. There has to be some accommodation for what they are going through.

It is an important issue in relation to Covid. I do not know whether it is a good or a bad thing that the Minister with responsibility for further and higher education was a Minister for Health but I can assure students and staff that I will take a very cautious approach to the issue of on-site attendance in the interests of people’s health. I have met the unions and will be meeting them again tomorrow. I have met the leaders of the higher education institutions. I meet the Union of Students in Ireland, USI, on a regular basis. Health has to come first, second and third in this regard and then next, and very quickly, has to be the quality of the education. I am very encouraged by the Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, report that showed that despite the extraordinary emergency situation in which staff had to work and students had to learn, the quality of education attainment held up. I am also conscious that the longer that goes on, the more challenging it becomes.

I will give just two quick answers that are important. At the moment, we are in the middle of a three-week period whereby the then acting Chief Medical Officer asked us to put extra precaution measures in place. We are due to review that in the next few days and to work with education partners to decide what the rest of the semester looks like. The second issue, a very valid one, is on connectivity. I have a meeting this afternoon with HEAnet on how we can improve connectivity. We have good connectivity on-site. Is there a way of getting some of that off-site? Some of it might be funding through the student access fund; some of it might be more ambitious. Is it possible - I do not yet know the answer to this - to create community learning hubs where people can learn in their community and have good access there if they cannot get on-site? I will be asking or instructing, whichever is appropriate, higher education institutions to use common sense in terms of not wanting people to travel but of them not losing out. I do not think they need to be instructed because they are showing leadership on this.

I thank the Minister and the Minister of State for their work to date. More broadly, I thank the further and education sector, which has responded in innovative ways to this crisis, in particular, as the Minister has addressed, to provide 424 places in a very short time and to overcome the difficulties involved in that. I thank the Minister for the announcement of the multi-annual technological university transformation fund, in particular the €5.1 million announced for the university of the south east yesterday. The Minister was correct in his response to Senator Dolan earlier about how transformational that could be, particularly in terms of regional development. One other small step that the Minister and the Minister of State took was the change to ensure children of asylum seekers who are here and who are offered a college place are no longer treated as international students. It was a small but very welcome and positive step. I share the concerns others have raised and I think it is important that we continue to consider the leaving certificate classes of 2019 and before.

I agree with Senator Dolan about the European Research Council, ERC, and I welcome the fact that the Minister is talking about greater collaboration with European institutions. In a post-Brexit scenario, we need to look at greater collaboration there. Deputy Ó Cathasaigh was correct about the opportunities with regard to retrofitting but not just in terms of apprenticeships in that area. Many of the facilities in our higher and further education institutions need to be retrofitted and it is an easy win in terms of energy gains as a programme.

I will focus on a number of questions. When the Minister came before the Seanad, there were two specific issues I raised. I had raised them previously with the Minister’s Department and I followed up with the Department and I still do not have answers on them. The Minister may be able to provide the answers to these two specific questions. One relates to support for student nurses and midwives. I know the Minister is very much aware of the issue. The other is the question around insurance for international students which has been running for a while. The Minister’s office has been helpful but I still have not got answers from his Department so perhaps on those two issues the Minister can offer some clarity.

I thank the Senator. I want to make sure I say as clearly as the Senator did that there is a huge "Thank you and congratulations" due to the higher education sector. We in this room can and do call for things but the amount of graft that has been undertaken in the last week in particular and over the past few months, has been incredible and I want to acknowledge that.

We are going to get the technological university for the south east done and we will work together. On asylum seekers, there was a huge amount work done by officials in my Department. The Irish Refugee Council have been calling for this. It is only a first step. On retrofitting, the Senator is right. We can be as ambitious as we want on retrofitting but we must also have the skills and he is also right to say we should practice what we preach and look at our own institutions.

On the insurance issue, my understanding is that arising from a court case this week, there is engagement, as we speak, with the sector representative bodies, with the Departments of Health and Justice and Equality as we seek to resolve the matter. The preferred objective is an outcome where the market operates to provide the necessary insurance cover at an acceptable price. This is a free market we live in and the insurance companies, in my view, need to help us here. There is engagement going on as we speak between my Department and the Departments of Health and Justice and Equality and I will keep the Senator updated on that.

On the student nurses and midwives, when I was in a previous role we were very clear that we offered people contracts as healthcare assistants and we reached an agreement with the educational institutions that this would be recognised as part of their educational attainment. In truth, the policy solution here does not lie within my Department but I have asked my Department to engage with the Department of Health on this issue. The HSE is the employer in most cases. It is entirely right and proper from a public health point of view that people say one cannot work in a hospital and then in a nursing home or anywhere else at the weekend for fear of spreading the virus. I get that.

Nevertheless, I understand the financial challenges, so my Department is actively engaging with the Department of Health. I am glad my office is being helpful. As soon as we have an outcome, the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, or I will be back before the committee.

I will be grateful if the Minister keeps me informed.

I will indeed.

An urgency is involved, particularly for those who are affected by both of those issues.

Yes, there is. I hope the HSE, as the employer, can show flexibility. There has to be a way. We are spending vast sums on this pandemic and there has to be a way, within that very large sum of additional money the Government has allocated for Covid costs to health, that this group of students can be supported.

There was some discussion of Brexit, which presents an opportunity for the further and higher education space. My colleague, Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan, raised the issue of Erasmus+. Given that it is intended that the Erasmus+ budget will increase by 55%, that presents a major opportunity for Ireland. A campaign is needed here to encourage Irish students to take up Erasmus+ in much greater numbers. The SFI centre, which the Minister mentioned in regard to North-South co-operation, is welcome but we need to look at many more such initiatives.

There are possibilities in that regard. Joint professorships, both North-South and east-west, need to be considered. We share common quality assurance systems and the peer-review culture between the two islands is very similar. Work has been done by the British Irish Chamber of Commerce, the Royal Irish Academy and others, but there is an opportunity at the heart of the Department to look at how we can foster greater North-South, east-west co-operation while, at the same time, encouraging European collaboration.

On the Erasmus+ question, I agree with the Deputy.

I agree on the North-South point, too, but there is a great deal of work we need to do and it should be a large-scale ambition. When I was in the Department of Health, I saw the very significant collaboration that exists. Cancer patients from Donegal travel to Altnagelvin Area Hospital and sick children from Northern Ireland have life-saving surgery at Crumlin hospital. It works. The island does not care about politics, and neither does health or education. We have to make this work. In a city such as Derry, there is very considerable potential to do more, as there is in the north west of the island. There has been a recognition of that from university presidents, North and South. I had engagement on this with Universities Ireland this week and have indicated to the Taoiseach my wish to engage with the shared island unit within his Department for some of the North-South expertise.

Deputy Conway-Walsh and I have spoken about this. For me, it is not a political issue. It is not a green or orange issue but rather one of pragmatism, common sense and win-win for North, South and the island of Ireland . Particularly in the context of Brexit, from a research point of view our access to the European Union will be of benefit. I am really up for it. While I will have to engage with partners in the North and beyond, the committee could perhaps again be useful in that regard.

I thank the Minister and the Minister of State for appearing before the committee and wish them both well in their roles. I hope that the Department achieves what we all want it to achieve and that it is a new dawn for further and higher education.

I will begin with a point rather than a question, although the Minister can respond if he wishes. It relates to his previous Department. Anywhere in the country one will hear of delays in child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, psychology services and so on. Mental health issues are significant. The fundamental problem is there are not enough psychiatrists or psychologists, although that is partly a worldwide problem. From speaking to people who have completed psychology courses, many of them want to be psychologists but cannot afford it. The opportunities for them to get fully funded places where they can get clinical experience are just not adequate. Unless someone is from a wealthy background, the option is not there or, if it is, it requires a circuitous route and many people do not take it. That is an issue we need to crack if we are serious about reducing waiting lists and giving people the opportunities to be psychologists or psychiatrists.

We called for all students to get a place this year. I welcome the fact that the Government made that decision and commend it. The Minister identified the work of the higher education institutions, which was extraordinary in managing to achieve that, and I also commend them. We cannot, however, dismiss the issue of students who were squeezed out. We do not know how many there are at this point but the figure is potentially significant. It seems the Government is considering legal action, and while I do not wish for that, it seems to be objectively the case that if such students can demonstrate they missed out on places, they will have been disadvantaged by the error. Objectively, therefore, an injustice will have been done to them. Can any of us be surprised if a court decides they should be awarded deferred places? We need to examine this. Perhaps there is some opportunity in the places that will be offered to students who sit the exams in two months. I do not know whether some kind of mathematical exercise can be done to determine what the points would have been if that error had not occurred and whether they could be given places next year on the strength of that. Is the Minister considering that and does he think there is scope for it in the November offers?

The first point the Deputy made was an interesting one but I will revert to him on it in more detail so as not to delay the meeting. During the past week, we have been working to get additional places identified and people have been great in that regard, but the idea that there are caps on the numbers of people who can be taken into courses, given that there are shortages in the public service, seems a bit peculiar. It is an interesting point and I will revert to the Deputy on the issue of psychiatry and psychology.

I thank the Deputy for his comments about all students getting places this year and will pass them on to the higher education institutions that deserve those thanks and gratitude. I accept his point that this year, the system was imperfect. I accept that some students in the system now may be looking at the television wondering whether they would have got a place if something else had happened, but I would counter that with a couple of points.

The first is that it has been an extraordinary pandemic year and this was the best response that could have been put in place. Second, the additional places undoubtedly provided more opportunities for all students, irrespective of the number of points they ended up with. Third, the percentages of students getting their first, second or third place offers are all in line with or better than in previous years. It is not for me to comment on matters for the Department of Education and Skills - I have to get the division of responsibilities right - but I heard what the chief inspector, Mr. Hislop, said the other night about how little could be done short of going back and running the system all over again, which would displace existing students. There is no perfect solution. There is a long-standing precedent, going back decades, that nobody gets downgraded. While I accept the Deputy is not advocating for that-----

-----I am not sure how the circumstances would be resolved beyond what we have done.

I take on board all that and do not seek a dispute with the Minister. My point is that it may become the case that it can be demonstrated that students were disadvantaged by the error. However it came to be, there was an error and it is probably the case that some students were disadvantaged.

We do not seek to run the CAO competition again but will it be possible, when places are offered in November, to run a mathematical exercise to determine what the points might have been if the error had not occurred, thereby allowing those students who missed out on places, despite being eligible for them, to be offered a deferred place? I do not see any reason that cannot happen, although there are obviously other considerations, including the leaving certificate class of 2021, which is an important one. I would nonetheless like the Minister to explore it because there may be scope in the November offers to resolve some of these issues. I do not know how significant the error is and I do not believe that he does either-----

-----but perhaps there is some way it can be found out.

My final question, on apprenticeships, is open to either the Minister or the Minister of State. I raised this matter with SOLAS previously. Much of what has been said about apprenticeships is very welcome. It is about culture change but also investment. By the same token that perhaps higher education did not get the focus it should have in the Department of Education and Skills, we need to ensure that further education will not be neglected in the new Department either. The matter I raised with SOLAS relates to electrical instrumentation. The industry cannot get enough apprentices. It is a great trade, although it is not an easy one to get through and in which to get one's papers, but there is significant scope for apprentices. There is considerable demand from employers but not enough people are taking it up. I would, therefore, prioritise that if possible.

The other type of apprenticeship, if the committee will permit me to be parochial, relates to a facility in Cork that used to provide apprenticeships in both general painting and decorative painting skills, which are used in film production, signage and all sorts of different things. Neither course is being offered and the facility is lying idle. People who wish to paint in Cork, Kerry, Waterford or wherever have to travel to Dublin to take such courses, which makes no sense. It is an awful waste and it is probably discouraging people from taking up painting apprenticeships in Cork. The facility is there, and while I think it is used for some evening classes, it is mostly idle. Can we get that back, along with painting apprenticeships in Cork?

I cannot give the Deputy a commitment on that here and now but it is something on which I will correspond with SOLAS and I will revert to the Deputy.

Does the Minister want to respond to Deputy Ó Laoghaire's question?

As the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, said, I would welcome thoughts and submissions from this committee. One of the things we are going to have to do is to look at the public sector; it cannot be a case of: "Do as I say, but not as I do." There is untapped potential for the public sector to do a lot more in terms of apprenticeships, and this issue was raised with me in the Seanad a couple of weeks ago.

On the leaving certificate calculated grades, as the Deputy, in fairness, somewhat implied or acknowledged, for every move or countermove, there is a knock-on effect. That is something of which the Minister for Education and Skills is going to be very conscious. I will certainly pass on the Deputy's comments to her, but I have no doubt the Deputy will also raise them with her himself.

I call on Senator Pauline O'Reilly.

I welcome the Minister and Minister of State, and congratulate them on their appointments. I thank the Minister for raising the issue of consent, and I welcome his call today for this committee to examine it and to work with him on the issue. To pick up on the point he made on the amount of sexual violence in third level institutions, I would like to say that that is where we know the problem exists. A survey was completed earlier this year of more than 6,000 students, and it is from that study that this consent package has been put together. I know that the staff and students have been working on this active consent programme in NUI Galway for many years. That survey found that 29% of females, 10% of males, and 28% of non-binary students had reported that they had experienced rape or something similar. There is a real opportunity to look at the issue, not from the perspective of third level institutions, but to say that this is where we are putting in place the education that will inform students for the rest of their lives. I would like to hear what the Minister feels this committee could contribute beyond the very welcome launch of the active consent programme in NUI Galway, which he attended.

I thank the Senator for highlighting this issue. I want to acknowledge the huge leadership shown by NUI Galway, along with UCC, particularly with the by-stander and active consent programmes. I am conscious that every time I put a spotlight on this issue, it is not to in any way take away from the very good work being done by some people within the institutions, but more to try to support them.

I fully agree with the Senator's point on this issue. When I talk about this issue, I do not talk about it as though it is a specific problem that is confined to higher education - far from it. However, I am aware that there is a big issue in higher education, and education can lead in this. Education should be a place of safety, inclusion and tolerance, and it should also be a place of learning. Promoting positive consent in third level education is something that can help this transcend into society, which can only be a good thing.

In terms of how this committee can help, we have good guidelines in place but guidelines that are not implemented at a local or institutional level are no use to anybody. I have written to each university president, indeed my first correspondence with them was on this issue. I have asked them to produce an action plan on how they, in their own individual colleges, intend to tackle the issue of sexual violence, specific to their institutions. That is one thing that this committee could help play an oversight role in.

I also intend to expand the role of the Higher Education Authority, HEA, on monitoring this. People take things more seriously if they are monitored or measured against something, and that will help. I am very grateful to NUI Galway and the Union of Students in Ireland, USI, for doing that excellent survey but I do not think it should fall to students or a university to do this. This State should be doing this, so we intend to carry out and publish a survey and to monitor in this area.

I want to acknowledge Dr. Aoibheann Ní Shúilleabháin's leadership on this issue. She has met with me on a number of occasions and is very determined - as am I - that we drive changes through her own story and experience that she bravely and kindly shared with us.

We also need to change the composition of people that we put on governing authorities; I have tried to show good faith on this. The only skillset should not be being able to count numbers; it has to be broader that that. That is why I appointed Noeline Blackwell, CEO of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, to sit on the governing authority of UCD. Our institutions are terribly male. I am conscious-----

I sit on a governing authority.

Well, there you go. I am relieved to hear the Senator sits on one. Through ministerial appointments, we have a chance to send a message about this issue, and we have to do so. We know about it now, and nobody can claim ignorance or say they did not know. There is a real issue here and we have a chance to resolve it. It is cultural, but it is also a matter of every parent in Ireland wanting to know that when their child goes to college, they are safe. If we get this right, it will be reputationally enhancing for the institutions, not the other way around. Parents will want their kids to go somewhere where they will be safe and respected; students will want to go there themselves. Hearing from some of the people I have, like Dr. Louise Crowley in UCC who runs the by-stander programme, and Dr. Pádraig MacNeela in NUI Galway who runs the active consent programme, there are real leaders in this area, and the USI has led. I would welcome the committee's view on what should be included in action plans and how we should be monitoring them, so it could help play an oversight role in that regard.

I thank the Minister and the committee will respond to his comments in due course. On the north-west region, I know the very welcome investment was mentioned by Senator Dolan earlier. I would like to draw the Minister's attention to the report by the Northwest Regional Assembly that showed that the funding is €141 per head for the north-west region in comparison to €197 for the other regions, and also that Europe has downgraded only that region from being a developed region to a region in transition. How far along the trajectory does the Minister feel he is in terms of this amount of funding in bringing the north-west region to the same level as the rest, because there is an inequality there currently? The only way to bring investment to the area in economic terms is if we invest in education.

I completely agree with the Senator. I would suggest to the Senator a technological university for Connacht-Ulster should be established. The Connacht-Ulster Alliance Consortium, CUAC, is the potential answer to that, because with that will come funding and scale, which we really need. The cross-Border piece, particularly in the north-west, when I look at the map of the island of Ireland, it seems to me to be a no-brainer that there is the potential to do more in that regard. I would really like to see the application from the consortium for the technological university for the north west to arrive as soon as possible. I know there is a huge amount of work being done on it as we speak, and I thank them for that. During the lifetime of this Government, if we can deliver for the south east and the north west, if one looks at the map of Ireland, it will be much more regionally balanced from an education and research point of view.

The next speaker is Deputy Jim O'Callaghan.

First, I would like to congratulate the Minister and Minister of State on their appointments. There are great challenges involved in being Ministers in a very new Department for the first time, but there are also great opportunities. I regard both Ministers as a dynamic duo, so I expect to see great achievements by both of them in this new Department.

I will start with the Minister, Deputy Harris. It is not so much a question as a request for the Minister to reflect on an issue. Thousands of students have commenced in third level institutions and institutes of further education over the past few weeks. We need to recognise that they are starting courses under very unusual circumstances. We cannot shy away from the fact that they are missing out on a huge part of their life experiences as a result of not being able to be engaged on campus. Instead a lot of them are attending lectures via zoom calls or remotely into their bedrooms. It is important that we offer them some hope and that they recognise that the situation will not be like this indefinitely, and they will be able to get back control of their lives. Can the Minister say anything to these students to give them that hope and to tell them that he recognises they are missing out on important developments in their lives?

I thank the Deputy and appreciate him raising the issue because people do need hope. We focused a lot, quite rightly, on the impact of the pandemic on older people but I am not sure we have given the same voice, as the Deputy has, to the impact of the pandemic on younger people. Students studied for exams that never took place in respect of the leaving certificate; the final days and months in school were missed; debs and graduations were cancelled; and the excitement of going to college is being put on hold.

This takes a toll on people. I point out to students that this is not forever. We are taking this semester-by-semester. We constantly look for more opportunities to do things on site. We have not locked the doors of universities as we did in March. Libraries are open. Practicals can take place. Small groups of students can be brought in for tutorials. I have endorsed the USI campaign because the terribly "lecture-y" attitude going on that students need to shut the door and not come out is not helpful. Finger wagging from all of us is not helpful. USI have a very good campaign: "Keep it safe; keep it small; keep your distance." Students need to be able to socialise, but just need to do it in a safe way. The Chief Medical Officer has also endorsed that campaign. This is not forever.

It is okay to feel fragile at this time. In many ways we all do. There is a 24-7 text line for any student or indeed for any of us. We should all make that number famous and ensure all students have it in their phones, knowing they can reach out for help.

On the broader issue of funding of third level institutions, we had the Cassels report a number of years ago. What would the Minister like to achieve when it comes to putting in place a reliable and secure method of funding for third level institutions?

I think as a political system we have shirked our responsibilities on this for far too long. There is a sense of "is there anything to be said for another report?"; that seems to be the echo that comes from this place from all parties. Mr. Cassels did a very good body of work. An all-party committee met and decided to refer it for an economic evaluation. My predecessors have now commended that with European Commission input, and it is due back at the start of 2021. I want to settle the question during my time here. I want the Government to settle the question. Core funding for higher education is too low. Equally, cost is a barrier and we cannot have either.

My instinct is not to pre-empt what is to come out of the report - I do not like the idea of the student loan attached to education. There might be some merit in being able to take out a student loan to help with some of the costs of being a student. I do not like the idea of students emerging from third level education heavily indebted. We need to regard an undergraduate degree as a continuation of our education system and then provide better financial supports for people at a postgraduate level. Next year, 2021, needs to be the year in which we settle this question.

The arrival of international students into Ireland has been affected by the pandemic. I, like other members of this committee, have been contacted by organisations concerned about the increase in insurance costs for international students in Ireland. Without getting into it in too much detail, can the Minister give those institutions any updated information that might alleviate some of the concerns they have?

I am certainly not going to tell the Deputy about legal findings, rulings and the like. My understanding is this arises from a court ruling. This week the Department of Health, the Department of Justice and Equality and my Department are engaging. As I said earlier in this meeting, it is my preference that the operators step up and provide access to affordable insurance. Considerable engagement is going on behind the scenes in that regard. As this has come up a few times, I will endeavour to get a note on its status to this committee next week.

The Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, have identified a very viable point about how apprenticeships have been subordinated beneath the belief that studying for medicine, law or engineering is more worthwhile which, of course, it is not. We need to have a mechanism to allow young people in school to recognise that if they do well in certain courses in the leaving cert they can see an avenue through to apprenticeships in the same way as other students who are successful academically see an avenue through to medicine. The Ministers may not be able to answer that. Is that part of the vision they both see for the Department?

We need to get beyond the mindset that apprenticeships are for someone else's children. That is a big part of it. I was in a DEIS school in my constituency recently. There is brilliant leadership in that school in presenting the full range of options to students. I think the CAO application process narrows the conversation far too quickly. We keep saying that further education training is great but when we sit down around the kitchen table with our kids, we hand them the CAO form and we talk about higher education. We need to broaden the conversation and that is part of it.

I wish to reiterate the point made earlier. It is about destigmatising the notion and concept of apprenticeships and some of the courses and options available in the further education sector. For people who do not get their first choice or their desired choice, it is not about taking a step backwards to go forwards, it is about taking a step sideways to move forward again. Opportunities are there as the Minister, Deputy Harris, outlined in his opening remarks, where people who do not get their first choice can take a different option and achieve their desired course in the higher education institute.

There are now apprenticeship offerings in financial services, digital marketing and digital skills. It is moving into the new spheres, getting away from the traditional apprenticeships which some people look down their noses on. We all have a role to play in giving leadership and changing the mindset. We also need to educate people who contact us. The cancellation of the written leaving cert and the move to calculated grades has resulted in an increase in the number of people contacting us who have been disappointed that they have not achieved their desired course because of the pressure and the bit of grade inflation that we know about. When we point out the options, we find that many of them have not researched the available options to achieve what they want.

I welcome the Ministers and apologise if some of this has been covered already. I am mindful that we now have two Ministries for education. I was and remain a sceptic as to the justification for splitting it in that way. I have no doubt about the Minister's ability, tenacity and zeal in carrying out his mission with his portfolio.

He mentioned the focus that the CAO process provides. It has the effect of narrowing the range of options. I agree with everything that has been said about the need to destigmatise apprenticeships to promote alternatives to traditional academic third level options having regard to the needs the country has and so on. Is it not also fair to say that the points system as it has operated has also narrowed the focus extraordinarily and that we need a radical review of how the leaving cert is operating to shape people's minds? With the broader focus on education, education for life, wisdom and so forth, do we not increasingly have a leaving cert focus that emphasises skills perhaps to the detriment of wider education? Do we need to consider change in that area also?

I am conscious of the point the Senator has made about the split of Departments. I do not want to stray too much into the Department of Education and Skills. I take the point he makes that despite all the difficulties we have had this year with calculated grades - I accept there have been many - but in one way I wonder of some this year's students have obtained a place in third level that they might not have obtained had they gone through the traditional leaving cert exam because their teachers who know their passion and their past experience have been able to grade them. That has gone through all the safeguards and checks of the standardisation process. In that way it is fair to say there is no perfect system, including the leaving cert exam.

I have not done enough thinking on this to give the Senator a fair answer. I think there is a need for a broad conversation about how we move young adults from our secondary education system to the career pathway they want to be on.

I do not want to take the Senator's time but, on the apprenticeship model, even now we still sometimes talk about the traditional apprenticeships - by the way they are very important and there is a skills shortage - in some apprenticeships it is possible to do a masters for the apprenticeship. We actually have a doctoral level apprenticeship now. When I was a Minister of State, I met a chief executive officer of a bank in Germany who came to the bank as an apprentice and ended up being the CEO of a big bank. It is about a diversity of pathways. There is something in what he said.

Would the Minister agree that we need to have a more courageous debate about student loans than we have had up to now? We are facing into a very difficult period financially in the medium term and all sorts of good things need public funding.

Those who avail of a third level education have their chances greatly improved in life. It improves their chances of prosperity and a very successful livelihood and so on. Is it not reasonable that we would at least begin a debate about coming up with a system involving the financing of third level education through a system of student loans that are different from other loans in that the repayments and the extent and requirements thereof would be contingent on the eventual earning power of the college student? Do we not need to have a conversation about student loans?

We do need to have such a conversation. We are having one. In many ways, Mr. Cassells sparked or gave voice to that conversation when he presented his three options. As of now, those options are being economically evaluated, as was requested by the all-party Oireachtas committee. That is due back to me in 2021. I hope 2021 will be the year we settle the question of what a sustainable model of funding looks like. My personal view is a little different to that of the Senator in that regard. I think we should be trying to move into the space where undergraduate courses are an extension of the education system we have in primary and secondary schools and then look at how the State can financially support people, in terms of grants and so on, when they go beyond that. However, I will not pre-empt the findings of the report.

I was quite surprised that NUI Galway, my alma mater, recently stood back from its initial requirement that students sign up to a pledge as a condition of registration for their courses. The pledge was, effectively to honour the requirements of social distancing and all the related restrictions that are particularly important for the student cohort. I do not wish to demonise any section of the community, but members know some sectors of the community may need to be reminded more than others about the need for safety at this time. The university stood down from that requirement, which was surprising. It became more of a voluntary commitment. I believe universities are within their rights to make it a condition of registration that people sign up to such a pledge. What are the Minister's thoughts on that issue?

I would apply the same logic. After golfgate, I wonder whether Members of the Oireachtas should have to sign a similar pledge. There were no young people at that event. I do not think such behaviour is confined to one age group. However, I take seriously the point made by the Senator because, although it is a good thing to socialise and mix and all members know students will wish to so do, if it is not done in an appropriate way, it can be very dangerous. We have seen much evidence of that in third level sectors, such as in Galway. Universities are well within their rights as a condition of registration to consider all of those matters. I note prompt action was taken by University College Cork, UCC, in recent weeks when it was concerned that some people were risking public health and public safety. I have endorsed the Union of Students in Ireland, USI, campaign, as did the Chief Medical Officer. It is a very good campaign that recognises that people will socialise but encourages them to do so safely in small groups while keeping their distance. The regulations of a university are a matter for it and its governing authority.

Before other members come in, I wish to make several points, some of which have been raised already. I direct my questions to the Minister and the Minister of State. I refer to the Department's funding model for third level institutions. There is a significant drop-off in the number of international students this year. Many third level institutions will not have the same amount of funding from international students as they did previously. How will the Department fill that gap?

To follow on from the points made by Senator Mullen and other members on student loans, a wider debate is needed on the very different funding models in Europe and elsewhere. I am a believer in the Australian model. I acknowledge that not all members will agree with me in that regard. We need a sustainable model of funding, but we also need sustainable options. We should not decide on just one model as the way forward. There must be several options because not all models will fit various families and students. A suite of options must be available.

All present will agree there is a need for a sustainable funding model for higher education. Such a model is not currently in place. That might be where agreement ends because there are diverse views on the matter. I have heard a few of those views already at this meeting. I suggest that we should be guided but not bound by the report the previous Oireachtas asked the Department of Education and Skills to commission on foot of the Cassells report. That was due back at the end of this year but Covid has delayed it, as it has everything else. It is now due back at the start of 2021. When the report is received, I expect there will be extensive conversations on it at this committee. I am sure the committee will wish to hear from its authors and so on.

The SUSI grant system already results in more than 40% of students not paying a registration fee, which is a good thing. The Chairman is correct. We need to have a sustainable funding model and ensure there are no barriers to access. I am a little concerned that worries about leaving college with debt may be a barrier for some students or families. I would be very cautious or nervous in that regard because people may be fearful of that idea. It is not a political point - Deputy Conway-Walsh and I have debated this previously - to state that the system in place in the North is not one the Deputy would wish to have replicated in the South. I would not like it to be replicated in the South either. We need to tease our way through this issue. I expect we will spend a lot of time discussing this issue in 2021.

On a more parochial matter, the Minister has appointed Mr. Boland to head up the technological university for the south east. I very much welcome that appointment. I ask for the Minister's full commitment and that of his Department in the coming months because it is a part of the country that does not have a university, although it has institutes of technology in Waterford and Carlow. We must build towards that university. There is a significant job of work ahead of us. Much work has been done in recent months. I welcome the funding announced yesterday. It is good for balanced regional development. I know the Minister is committed to the project and I ask that he and his Department maintain that level of commitment.

The committee will undertake an examination of key issues around bullying in schools, Internet security and so on. Representatives from DCU will be appearing before the committee in the coming weeks. The examination is in support of the first UN International Day against Violence and Bullying at School Including Cyberbullying, which will be on 5 November. I ask the Minister's Department to support that initiative.

The Minister announced a comprehensive financial package of €5 million. How can he be sure that funding will be used to recruit additional student counsellors and assistant psychologists, as well as other measures for the benefit of students' mental health?

There is a significant drug misuse problem in third level institutions. Is the Minister or his Department doing any work on drug misuse? I acknowledge that the Department was only recently set up. Students should be tested. I am not sure whether there is any on-site testing. It may be needed if we are to take on the challenge of drug misuse. Third level presidents and staff members have openly told me it is a significant challenge. Has the Minister put any thought into tackling the issue of drug misuse in third level institutions?

I will have a question for the Minister of State after the Minister has replied.

On the technological university for the south east, my Department and the Government as a whole are very committed to its delivery. As I stated when I briefed Oireachtas Members representing the south east this week on a cross-party basis, there is a significant body of work that needs to be done in the coming weeks and months. It is important to have a clear understanding of the key dates in the process. I am due to meet the presidents of the two institutions, the chairs of the governing authorities, Mr. Boland and his team this month. They are expected to present the project plan to me, laying out how they intend to get from here to the opening of the doors of a new university. I intend to bring that to the Government and publish it thereafter, probably in November. I will arrange for Oireachtas Members representing the south east to be briefed on the plan in advance of its publication. The plan will have a target date of the consortium submitting an application to me, as Minister, by next summer. If it does so by that date, the legislation states that I must appoint an independent review panel within four months. Mr. Boland would like to see the new university open its doors on 1 January 2022. There is many a slip between cup and lip. All of this is contingent on a significant body of work being undertaken by a wide variety of people at each stage.

They are the three dates. The project plan will be in October, application next summer and doors open 1 January 2022. That has to be the roadmap but there is a long way to get from each of those steps and we will be taking an active interest in that. The funding announced yesterday was an example of how we want to help facilitate that change management and the huge amount of work that needs to be done.

On the mental health funding, we have provided €5 million in additional funding, €2 million of which, in fairness, was announced in the last budget, with €3 million of it being new. That €5 million has been given out to each institution through the Higher Education Authority. I can get the committee a note on the breakdown for each institution. It is to do exactly as the Chairman said. Students tell me that the mental health services, when they can access them, are good. The issue is getting access to them. The idea is to increase the capacity and the number of student counsellors and specialists working in the sector.

On the issue of drug use, my view, coloured very much by my view as a former Minister for Health, is that there can be a significant link between drug use and mental health and well-being and I believe education is our most powerful tool to overcome that. A good deal of work needs to be done through our education system in third level, and not just third level, about the dangers of drug use, which needs to be led by students rather than us lecturing the students.

The Chairman referenced the fact that this committee will be holding hearings on bullying. While I am clear and very protective of the fact that this is a separate and distinct Department from the Department of education, I have no doubt there will be areas where there will be significant overlaps. The programme for Government commits to a Traveller education strategy. I have met Pavee Point. That has to include the work of the Department of education and my Department and, I believe, the Department of children, disability, equality and integration. Issues such as mental health, bullying, sex education and consent do not neatly fit in one Department and my Department and officials will be very willing to help this committee in its work on any of those issue.

I thank the Minister. The Minister, Deputy Niall Collins, should be aware that additional time will be made available to allow more Deputies contribute.

Regarding apprenticeships in the hospitality sector, I have spoken to a number of hoteliers on this issue in the past few months since this new Department was set up and there is a real focus on apprenticeships. I refer to the need to reboot the economy after the Covid-19 pandemic. We saw the way the hospitality sector assisted the economic recovery following the financial crash but following that there was a huge shortage of chefs, jobs in areas of hotel management and so on. I believe the hotel and catering college is still operating in Shannon, County Clare, and before that we had CERT. My constituency office, and I am sure it is the case with other members' constituency offices also, has had contact from chefs in other countries who are trying to come here to work in hotels but who are facing work visa issues and so on. I ask the Minister of State, who has responsibility for apprenticeships, to look at the area of chefs specifically because when we come out the other side of the Covid-19 pandemic the hotel and hospitality sector will be hugely important in the recovery of our economy. It is an area the Minister of State might be able to work on with the hotel and hospitality sector. I hope to bring the representatives of the sector before this committee in the coming 12 to 18 months to get their views on that because it has been raised with me.

The Chairman is right. That issue has been raised with me. I am sure it has been raised with the Minister, Deputy Harris, every member of the committee and beyond that. It is a concern I have had for a number of months. The Irish Hotels Federation raised it in its communications to me and it was raised also by the Restaurants Association of Ireland. I have had preliminary discussions on it with SOLAS. I have asked it to examine the issue in terms of drafting of the new action plan for apprenticeships, so I am acutely aware of it and I will follow it up.

I will give three minutes each to members who want to come in.

I will be brief. To go back to the laptops, the colleges and universities are using the SUSI criteria to distribute the laptops. I do not believe that is fair. I asked the Minister about that at a very early stage and he said that would not be part of the criteria. I am particularly concerned about people on very modest incomes, many of whom are front-line workers. Will he talk to the colleges and get them to reassess that and not base it on eligibility for a SUSI grant?

I thank the Deputy for raising that with me. We have given the higher education institutions discretion on the basis that they would know best who needs them but I am very clear that there should not be a rigid application in that someone can only have one if they have a SUSI grant. I will follow that up and if the Deputy has examples I am happy to talk to her offline on it.

I appreciate that. With regard to the 2,800 students who plan to sit the leaving certificate in November, can the Minister give an assurance that the CAO points for 2021 will return to a balanced state? I am conscious that they are going into an examination and they need some hope. Will the Minister send a message to those students?

It is important we do give them hope. I want the students to know that my aim will be to continue to maximise the number of opportunities that they have when the CAO issues its offers next autumn. It is important that my Department, and the Department of education, reflect on the fact that in many ways there is a bubble effect now because we have had a very unusual year this year, to put it mildly, and the Deputy has rightly highlighted the effect that has had on people from 2018, 2019 and 2020. We need to make sure that this is managed, so to speak, out of the system in a careful way. Now that we are nearly through this year's CAO process, I will give that active consideration with my officials in terms of how best we can help. The answer from my perspective will be to maximise the college places. The Minister, Deputy Foley, and her Department, will have a job of work to do in terms of maximising it from that Department also. The Deputy is rightly highlighting issues about 2019. We need to be very conscious, as she is, of the class of 2021 also. I am acutely aware of it and I am beginning work on it now.

We just want as much fairness introduced as possible.

One last question and then I will have to call Deputy Ó Laoghaire.

It has to be about the Mayo campus of the GMIT. I very much welcome what the Minister said about the Connacht Ulster Alliance and the progression of that but I am very concerned that the business element has been taken from the Mayo campus at GMIT. That makes no sense to me because of the importance of GMIT both in terms of education and but also the development of Mayo, and Castlebar in particular.

Absolutely. I thank the Deputy for contacting me on that. I have made inquiries with GMIT through the Higher Education Authority, HEA, and my Department on this and I will revert to the Deputy in writing on it, today if possible.

I want to first pick up the Minister briefly on his constructive responses earlier but his last contribution suggests that he will be contacting the Minister for education in regard to this but I remind him that the allocation of third level places is his gig, so the observations I have made are primarily for him to consider. I know it is complex and that there are all sorts of considerations but I am trying to be constructive and I believe there is something in it.

I would also touch on a point raised in the exchange between the Minister and Senator Mullen. I take the point. My experience, and it is true in Cork, is that there were students who were acting the tool and creating a lot of issues for residents. However, the people from the USI and the students union in Cork have done incredible work in Cork. They do excellent work with the Garda and I want to pay tribute to them because they cannot be held responsible. They have done everything in their power to try to minimise that and I believe they have made progress in recent years in Cork.

I have two final issues to raise. On the issue of SUSI, which the Minister referred to, it falls under a number of layers. I am not sure the amount of funding is enough but there is a major issue with the thresholds. There are many people on relatively low incomes who do not qualify for the full grant. In fact, the threshold to qualify for the full grant is very low. Many people get a bit of funding from SUSI but it is not enough to allow them be able to survive on any reasonable level. That needs to be addressed because there is a graduated approach, which makes sense, but it starts at far too low a base and, correspondingly, does not meet the needs of the people.

With respect to employment at third level, in some instances it suits people to work a small number of hours but I am concerned about a trend across several of the third level institutions, probably following on from a greater trend in Britain, involving the fragmentation of jobs. People who are on a few hours are not being offered extra hours and an additional job is being created. That is not fair. People might expect that third level teachers and lecturers are on good pay but that is not always the case. They can be on short hours and that is an issue we need to watch. People working a few hours for universities who are willing to take on a few more should get first refusal.

I am not sure whether a man from Wicklow can use a phrase like "acting the tool", which I presume is a Cork phrase - it has not reached Greystones anyway - but I take the Deputy's point.


I take the point and I understand it. The point the Deputy makes is correct. My experience of student leaders has been that they rightly do their job to agitate and to advocate but when it comes to public health, they have shown extraordinary leadership. In the conversations I have had to have with those in the Union of Students in Ireland, USI, they have never been anything more than proactive in wanting to protect the safety of everybody. In fact, the people I found who were most annoyed and angry with those who were acting the tool were other students. As Senator Mullen acknowledged too, it is not all students; far from it. One feels let down by one's peers when some go astray in that regard. The campaign, Keep it Small, Keep it Safe, Keep your Distance, is good solid public health advice. More important, it does not matter what I think. The Chief Medical Officer thinks it is really good advice for students to socialise like that by keeping it small and keeping their distance.

On SUSI, I take the points. One could equally make the points, and I am sure the Deputy will, about adjacency and about the fact that we tell people to do part-time courses and do not provide support and that we tell people to go back to education and we do not take crèche fees into consideration. I accept there are serious limitations with the current Act and the support scheme. The programme for Government commits to a review. I would hope to get that review under way quickly and I hope it can be meaningful. When we have that review, I would welcome the input of this committee. We must be honest about what we can achieve and the pace at which we can achieve it but I would not mind an understanding from the committee in a sequencing sense of what it thinks are the most important issues.

On the issue of precarious employment, I, too, have an initial concern about this from what I am hearing. In recent days, I asked my Department for a paper on the employment status of people in research, precarious employment and how we try to get on top of it. I would be happy to engage with this committee on that again.

It is great to hear again a Minister quoting the Chief Medical Officer with approval. We are returning to some kind of normality within abnormal times.

I echo what Deputy Ó Laoghaire said about the position of third level staff. They sometimes have very poor working conditions, poor remuneration, etc. That is definitely an area that we must look out for.

On the subject of student loans, I want to reiterate that what I propose here is that we, first of all, have a brave conversation. It cannot all be testing against what the media will think of us. I propose that we look at people's ability to repay, in other words, that what students get and what they have to repay is tied to the advantage that they eventually secure. It will be important that Government shows itself to be willing to embrace ideas that will be challenged from some quarters but, as with the question of exhorting students to be careful and to be safe, sometimes the message will have to be strong. There will be much to congratulate but the news cannot always be good news coming from the Government side. There will have to be challenging messages from time to time. Otherwise, we will not be able to face the challenges that are before us.

There is an irony in the comment of reminding Government that the news coming from Government cannot always be good. I am certainly familiar with that concept.

I assure the Senator that the body of work under way will deliver to this committee an honest economic evaluation of the various options, of which the one he advocates for is one being considered. All of those options will be economically evaluated and presented to this committee for robust debate and decision in due course.

I thank both Ministers for coming in today. Do either of them want to say anything before I wrap up?

Just to thank the members of the committee.

I compliment - I should have said this at the start of the meeting - both the Minister, Deputy Harris, and the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, and their officials, and the Secretary General, Mr. Breslin, on setting up a whole new Department. It was a big challenge over the past number of months, with Covid and everything like that, and dealing with the third level institutes. I say "Well done" on that.

I thank them both for appearing before us along with their officials. They are the first witnesses in to this committee. They can add that to their list of achievements.

The meeting is adjourned until what will be a private session at 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 15 October 2020, which will be on Teams.

The joint committee adjourned at 1.25 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 15 October 2020.