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.