Tuesday, 19 November 2019

Ceisteanna (34)

Catherine Martin


34. Deputy Catherine Martin asked the Minister for Education and Skills his plans for medium and long-term funding for third level education in view of the increasing demographic demand and the effect of substantial per capita reductions in investment in the sector in recent years; his timeline for receipt of the economic analysis of the Cassells report in view of the first funding major benchmark from the report in 2021; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [47825/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (9 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Education)

It is more than three years since the Cassells report was presented to the House and we have yet to make a decision on how we properly fund third level education, particularly in light of increasing demographic pressures. Since I tabled the question, the Minister has announced the successful tendering for an economic study of the three options set out in the Cassells. I welcome that, even if someone could have completed a bachelors degree in the time it has taken to commission the study. I am keen to get details on the timelines and how the Minister intends progressing in this vital area.

I am committed to continuing the process of investing in our higher education system and to the development and implementation of a sustainable funding model for the sector. The Government's commitment to investment in higher education is clearly demonstrated by the scale of investment in higher education in recent years, particularly in the previous three budgets.

Following the further planned increases in higher education spending for 2020 announced in the recent Estimates, planned current spending on higher education for 2020 will have increased by 25% compared with that planned for 2016. This constitutes an increase in the order of €370 million.

This is estimated to bring current funding for the higher education sector to €1.88 billion in 2020, which exceeds the previous peak level of planned investment of €1.78 billion made in the sector in 2008.

A key part of this investment is the human capital initiative, HCI, which will be a transformative development for the third level sector. The HCI will invest €300 million in higher education over the period 2020 to 2024. Funded from the surplus in the National Training Fund, the HCI will help to realise the objectives of Project Ireland 2040, Future Jobs Ireland and the national skills strategy. At €60 million per year over the next five years, it will form a key part of our strategic response to addressing the skills needs of the economy, mitigating Brexit risks, responding to digitalisation and the future world of work and preparing ourselves for other challenges the economy may face.

The development of a sustainable funding model for higher education is essential in light of the centrality of higher education, both in terms of human capital development and research and innovation, to underpinning the future development of Ireland as a knowledge economy against the backdrop of rapid technological change.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

In that context, a comprehensive economic evaluation of the funding options presented in the report of the expert group on future funding for higher education is now commencing, supported under the European Commission structural reform support programme to be undertaken by an expert independent international consortium.  We expect to have substantial work on this project completed by the third quarter of 2020.

The comprehensive and detailed analysis of funding options for higher education and the assessment of the appropriate balance between provision across the tertiary education system are expected to play a very important role in informing and advising Government decision making.  This will provide the basis for a national consensus on the appropriate policy approach which is fundamental to Ireland's economic and social sustainability and progress and the delivery of key policy objectives under Project Ireland 2040 and Future Jobs Ireland.

One of the recommendations in the Cassells report was that by 2021 there would be a €600 million per annum increase in the core funding for the third level sector in comparison to 2015 levels. I realise there are many different ways one could look at this, but can the Minister of State give an indication of how we are measuring against that recommendation? What is her estimate today of what will be the increase in core funding? Will it be the full €600 million or will it be a fraction and, if so, what fraction?

Second, the Minister of State referred to the human skills fund and the need to match investment in third level education to the needs of the economy. I am deeply concerned that we have seen no innovation in the past three to four years from the Government on the changed needs of the economy, particularly when it comes to delivering the green transformation we must make. Project Ireland 2040 does not deliver it and the national development plan was made without any consideration of climate change. I will give three examples. In forestry there is a single forestry course in UCD when we need thousands of new foresters to take on that project. The retrofitting of buildings will require 20,000 skilled carpenters, electricians and energy engineers. Again, nothing is happening in that space. The third area is organic agriculture. There are no new resources, effort or training going into that critical area of applied education. When will the Government amend its education plans to meet our climate objectives?

We have increased funding by €370 million over the past two years and into 2020. That money is in response to the Cassells report. As the Deputy knows, we are sending that report to Europe for an evaluation. It is not just about higher education. We also want an evaluation regarding apprenticeships and to know about future skills needs. All of that will be evaluated and dealt with in the report we are expecting.

We launched a €500 million climate fund and much of that is aligned with what is happening in the higher education institutions. As we speak, much work is taking place in the higher education institutions in the research area. They are using education funding for that.

On organic agriculture, I have met Teagasc on a number of occasions and I am due to meet it in the next fortnight and I will refer back to the Deputy on that.

It is three or four years since the completion of the Cassells report. Is this new study just starting again, in a sense? It is to examine the three funding options set out in the Cassells report, which are full State funding, increased State funding with continuing fees and income contingent loans. In the interim four-year period, has the Government formed a view on which of the three options might be preferable? Will it give a steer to the expert group now looking at the economic analysis or is it still at base one and waiting to make a decision on the strategic direction it will take?

I am sure the Deputy has read the Cassells report. What is in that piece of work is all about the lecturer and student ratio. I believe we need to make decisions for Ireland and more importantly for the students. We must look at apprenticeships, the future jobs, what is being delivered and the funding. The Deputy asked if I have a steer on it. The single steer I am giving publicly is that I do not believe that students should take out loans and then be saddled with huge debt into the future. I am not sure what the Green Party steer is on the three funding models we were given. Was it increased money from the taxpayer?

It is increased funding from the taxpayer.

That is fine. That was one of the models. Another was to continue as we are, with the students continuing to pay and extra funding from the State, which we are providing. The third was the student loan.

We will return to Question No. 33.