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Covid-19 (Higher Education): Statements (Continued)

Thursday, 14 January 2021

Dáil Éireann Debate

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Gary Gannon: Information on Gary Gannon Zoom on Gary Gannon] We have spoken previously about the digital divide. I would have raised it earlier with the Minister for Education if the opportunity had presented. The work being done across the university sector on pathways to third level overlaps with the issue of confronting that digital divide, albeit some of the voices are probably more realistic than others in terms of access to broadband. Progress in this regard would be hugely welcome. The Minister made reference to the fact that such a task would require significant investment in identity management and other improvements. I ask that he work with the Department of Education and the Minister, Deputy Foley, as the issue does not separate itself from third level students.

I welcome the review of the SUSI payment and I hope it will be swift and will account for inflation. I urge the Minister to look, in particular, at the issue of the binary labelling of students as either dependent or independent and the restrictions on changing that label. It is common for students to enter higher education as dependent students but their circumstances may change, sometimes dramatically. In some instances, students may become financially dependent over time. I have spoken to people who experienced both and were unable to access the financial support of SUSI as dependent students. They were required to submit financial information from parents or guardians with whom they no longer had a relationship. This is an issue every year in terms of access to the university sector. I wanted to highlight it in the limited time available and would welcome an opportunity to discuss it with the Minister at the next available opportunity.

I have raised a lot of points and would be grateful for whatever answers he can give.

Deputy Simon Harris: Information on Simon Harris Zoom on Simon Harris I thank the Deputy. I will do my best to get through as many of his questions as possible. I could not agree more with his point about well-being and that the leaving certificate class of 2020 and the first-year college class of 2021 are like no other in terms of all they have been through. I said in my opening statement that I am establishing a new group to monitor well-being and I have asked the USI to chair that group. We will work out further details of this tomorrow. While I am satisfied that we have done a lot to try to help students this year in terms of mental health supports, student assistance and the once-off €250 payment, we cannot do enough. We must continue to listen to the voice of the student and I certainly will feed that into our consideration.

On the dropout rate, I have asked the same question of the HEA. I hope to be able to capture those data and will be more than happy to share the information with the Deputy in writing. I am told that there has not been a significant change so far, from what the authority has seen. I would like to see that in writing, get the data and share them with the Deputy.

In terms of SUSI and the no detriment policy, USI called on me last week to make sure, in the first instance, that we restore the measures that were in place in March. We will do that. Second, although I cannot give a guarantee today on the floor of the House, we are going to look at how we can show that type of flexibility around SUSI. Getting students through this period alive and well mentally and physically has to be our first priority in keeping them connected with education. I certainly will look at what the Deputy referenced regarding the €250 payment and access to university courses and foundation courses.

As to what the next academic year will look like, I hope it will a lot different from this year. However, to be clear, under levels 3, 4 and 5, the bulk of learning remains online. We hope the vaccines roll-out will change the risk profiles of the options we have available. We need the meetings every Friday with the stakeholders to continue to review the situation.

Deputy James Lawless: Information on James Lawless Zoom on James Lawless I am sharing time with Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan.

We had a similar debate to this in March last year. It seems incredible that the pandemic has been with us for almost a year. The previous debate took place during the initial lockdown when the Dáil was on a similarly reduced footing, with fewer Deputies in attendance, etc. On that occasion, there was a discussion on the impacts of the Covid crisis on education, full stop, because, at that time, there was no Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. I recall that debate because the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, Deputy Connolly, and I were the only two speakers to raise issues relating to higher education and third level. It was probably a question of timing because the focus then, as it is today, was on the leaving certificate examination. It is significant in itself that we now have a separate debate, a separate Ministry and a separate Department, none of which we had this time last year. That is one of the credits and pluses that have come out of the formation of the new Government. As the Minister knows, I advocated strongly for his Department to be created. It is really positive for the third level, research institutions and the further education sector that it is now established and that we have this opportunity to discuss issues that pertain to them.

Some of the feedback I have had in recent months relates to one of the issues I raised almost a year ago regarding the impact of the Covid crisis. Researchers were very concerned about projects being put on hold, grant funding being time-blocked and their ability to draw it down after the pandemic. If the funding expired, how would they resume their research? I have to credit the Minister and his Department for the fact that the HEA, Science Foundation Ireland and others have stepped up to the plate and given many of those projects the ancillary funding to allow them to continue and to get them over the line. That was a real worry a year ago. I must conclude that this is, in some regard, down to the existence of the Department and its stewardship. That is really positive and we must acknowledge it. This is not to say that the sector is without its own financial challenges. In fact, those challenges remain huge and include the loss of international students, accommodation revenue and all the other ancillary revenues. The funding issues that were identified in the Cassells report still prevail and have only been exacerbated by the pandemic. There is some good news for researchers and the new Department is really helpful in that regard, but those systematic, fundamental issues around funding of the sector still exist.

I have two questions for the Minister. As I said, this is a debate specifically on issues relating to third level. I do not plan to go into the leaving certificate issue again, even though some speakers have done so. However, I will ask one question that joins the two dots in terms of second level education and higher education. We heard the Minister for Education speak earlier about the plans being made for the leaving certificate examination. I am a supporter of the traditional examination for reasons I outlined during that debate. I asked her and I am now asking the Minister, Deputy Harris, whether a commitment will be given, if a situation arises where the traditional examination does not take place this year and a predicted grades process or some other solution is found, that any physical sitting that takes place as an alternative or follow-on, as happened last year, will be done in such a way that there will be time for admissions to flow from it. I am asking that we ensure students are not sitting the examination in November to try to get a place in college for September or October. If that path is followed, the alternative physical examinations should take place on time, maybe in August. My view is that we should not take that path but, if we have to, the timing is something we should consider.

My second question is on a broader point but, again, it is related to the current situation. It concerns the curriculum at third level. I recall as a student in Trinity College that we had many debates in the students union about the idea of a broad curriculum whereby rather than people going in to do a course in physiotherapy, computer science or graphic design, for example, students would start off in a very broad first year, perhaps studying a collection of humanities, sciences and commerce courses. It would be a very broad curriculum in first year, which could then be refined in second year into more specific subjects and more structured courses. That would be useful in normal times because it would allow students who are not quite sure of where to put their first steps to explore wider subject choices and options. It would be particularly useful at this time, in a situation where we may have issues coming out of the leaving certificate process with students crossing the bridge from second to third level. It may be something to look at. I do not know if it is practical or possible coming into the new academic year but it certainly could be part of the discussion if we are again in a situation where there is pressure on places and admissions. That kind of refinement could take place going from first to second year in college rather than from leaving certificate into third level. I will stop there to allow the Minister to respond to those points and questions.

Deputy Simon Harris: Information on Simon Harris Zoom on Simon Harris I thank the Deputy for his work in advocating the establishment of my Department. I acknowledge the significant work he put into the policy development side of it. I hope we are beginning to see the merits and benefits of the Department. I thank him also for his kind words in regard to the researchers and the work my Department and the HEA are doing in that regard. When we get to the review of the national development plan and, indeed, when we are talking about every capital plan in this country, we need to realise that capital projects are not just about concrete; they are about human capital. I know the Deputy knows that and I look forward to working with him to try to win that argument across the various debates.

In regard to the leaving certificate examination, the Minister for Education has very kindly invited representatives from my Department to sit on the advisory group she has established. My Department is working hand in glove with her officials to try to tease out some of the issues. I very much share her ambition to hold the traditional leaving certificate examination this year. I look forward to her being able to put more details in that regard into the public domain shortly. I take the Deputy's point about the need for an earlier physical sitting should a contingency plan be put in place.

Finally, we can have a proper discussion on this at a later debate but on the whole issue of CAO reform and broader choices, I had a very good meeting with guidance counsellors last week. This is one of the exciting projects I want my Department to drive. We are narrowing the choices of young people in this country far too early and narrowing the conversation they are having. I would be delighted to work with the Deputy on that issue.

Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan: Information on Pádraig O'Sullivan Zoom on Pádraig O'Sullivan I welcome the Minister and the Minister of State to the House. I will first address some topics for discussion to the Minister. Many third level students have not received an authentic college experience. That is to be expected given the pandemic we are experiencing and the spiralling numbers of transmissions, particularly in the past few months.

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