My Department has seen significant achievements and initiatives in 2021, the majority of which are listed below.
- In April, the five-year Apprenticeship Action Plan was launched.
- The action plan aims to, among other things, increase the number of apprenticeships to 10,000 per year by 2025.
- Between January and November this year, there had been 6,471 apprenticeship registrations. This represented a 29% increase on 2019 figures for the same period.
- €20 million has been provided to expand apprenticeship – supporting almost 4,000 additional apprentice places annually.
- Employers who register and keep on new apprentices will continue to receive funding under the Apprenticeship Incentivisation Scheme, which was extended by my Department to end December 2021.
- Through Budget 2022, my Department has established a new Employer Apprentice Grant (to replace the incentivisation scheme), which will see annual payments to employers of €2,000 per apprentice for those apprenticeships not eligible for off-the-job training allowances.This means that, for the first time, employers of all apprentices will now have access to some level of financial support, either through direct payment of allowances to apprentices or through the new grant.
- Also under the Apprenticeship Action Plan, a new National Apprenticeship Office will provide even closer cooperation between SOLAS and the Higher Education Authority, to manage apprenticeship delivery across the further and higher education sectors.
Safe return to campus
My Department has also worked with the further and higher education sector to safely return more than 500,000 students to campus, supported by:
- specific sectoral advice
- distribution of 18.5 million face coverings to over 200 locations;
- on-campus vaccination clinics, where more than 6,000 vaccine doses were provided;
- securing Government approval in July for €105 million to support the campus return, in addition to €21 million of extra student support;
- addressing a number of key capital investment priorities in higher education institutions, with a €38 million devolved capital grant allocation;
- supporting the Unicov COVID-19 surveillance research project, including studying rapid testing and wastewater monitoring;
- recently providing a €9 million fund to support publicly-funded further and higher education institutions in providing antigen testing kits to students.
The technological university programme has accelerated in 2021, and will continue to do so next year.
- Munster Technological University became the second TU in the State on 1 January.
- The Technological University of the Shannon: Midlands Midwest was established on 1 October.
- The new TU for the West and Northwest, Atlantic Technological University, is anticipated to open officially on 1 April 2022.
- A TU is set to be established in the South East in the 2021/2022 academic year.
- TU Dublin will be able to accommodate up to 10,000 students with the opening of the Central Quad at its Grangegorman campus this year.
- Student rental protections have been agreed in partnership with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage.
- A circular has issued to chief executives of all local authorities to confirm that purpose-built student accommodation should not be used for short-term residential accommodation indefinitely, and that it should be safeguarded for use by students and other people related to higher education institutes during the academic year.
SUSI Student Grant Scheme
In October as part of the Budget, my Department made changes to the student grant scheme for the first time in a decade. These changes included;
- a continued entitlement to a student grant for applicants who received an improved offer after sitting the Leaving Cert this year
- several Department of Social Protection and other payments no longer count towards an applicant’s income total
- an increase in the postgraduate fee grant
- an increase in the maximum income threshold for postgraduates
- the social welfare payment for 65-year-olds is included as a qualifying payment for the special rate of maintenance grant
- supports given to Travellers to progress in higher education during the COVID-19 pandemic do not count towards an applicant’s income total
CAO, further education and apprenticeships
Since early December, the CAO website includes information on further education and apprenticeships, alongside higher education. This is in order to have Further Education, Higher Education and Apprenticeships as visible options for prospective students at 3rd level.
The Right Course
In January this year, my Department launched a new website, The Right Course is a resource for those for in businesses, employees or unemployed people outlining the supports and skills and training options available to them at third level. This includes short courses, digital skills courses and options for return to education at third level.
In September, my Department launched 'Adult Literacy for Life' – a 10-year adult literacy, numeracy and digital literacy strategy. The strategy makes a number of commitments, including:
- increasing the number of learners engaging with literacy and language support by 20,000
- expanding the range of courses available over the first half of the strategy’s lifetime
- reducing the number of adults in Ireland with unmet:
- literacy needs, from 18% to 7%
- numeracy needs, from 25% to 12%
- basic digital skills, from 47% to 20%
Equity of access
- My Department has supported procurement of additional ICT devices – including laptops – to support disadvantaged students who have difficulty in accessing a suitable device for their studies.
- Other investments include equipment and infrastructure required to support the creation of additional student places; general ICT and equipment-related upgrades; health and safety works, and other building upgrades; investments to support universal access and energy efficiency and decarbonisation-related upgrades.
- The Eduroam programme has been extended and offers students options to connect to their institution’s online services, including connections in municipal and commercial locations and commercial locations. The initial 140 locations include some of the most isolated and rural communities in the country, where access to broadband is a major challenge.
- Other equity of access initiatives include €450,000 ring-fenced funding for members of the Traveller and Roma communities; and the student support scheme for international protection applicants being expanded to fund postgraduate courses.
Zero tolerance of harassment and sexual harassment in third-level education
Measures to put this policy into action included:
- the launch in April of national staff and student surveys on sexual violence and sexual harassment in Irish Higher education institutions, which resulted in 7,901 responses from students and 3,516 from staff;
- an eight-week campaign in May to help educate students and staff to deal with disclosures of sexual harassment and violence;
- the publication in June by higher education institutions (HEIs) of their action plans aimed at ending sexual violence and harassment, following my request to do so;
- the launch in July of an online sexual consent learning hub, with the Department of Justice;
- the launch of 'Speak Out', an online and anonymous tool for students and staff to report violence and sexual harassment, in October.
- The Energy Efficiency and Decarbonisation Pathfinder Programme for the higher education sector, co-funded with SEAI, is already supporting eight projects and a further eight projects were recently selected to proceed through the design stage. A similar programme will be extended to the further education and training sector.
- Capital investments will also target the green skills and the research and innovation that are critical to Ireland’s transition to a climate neutral economy.
- Upskilling and training continue to be offered to businesses under the Climate Ready initiative.
- Other initiatives include collaboration between Skillnet Ireland and Chambers Ireland to teach the key principles of sustainable resource management to business leaders; and transport, energy, and waste and circular economy leaders programmes.
Creating Our Future
The Creating Our Future campaign, managed by Science Foundation Ireland, asked the public what researchers in Ireland can do to create a better future.
- Over 18,000 ideas were received from members of the public.
- The Creating Our Future Expert Committee and its working groups, will begin analysing the data.
- The committee intends to submit its draft findings to the Campaign Steering Committee in February 2022
- Following this, a report is expected to be submitted to Government in March 2022.
- A consultation period for a national research strategy is under way.
- Ireland has joined European counterparts in agreeing a new European Research Area policy framework to maximise the economic and social impact of research and innovation investment, support green and digital transitions, and ensure the ERA is committed to fair, open, inclusive and gender equal career paths.
Main priorities for 2022
My Department’s priorities are to maintain and improve upon the significant momentum built in 2021, to advance our strategies and action plans in all the vital areas under the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science’s remit, in line with the Programme for Government.