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

Thursday, 14 January 2021

Dáil Éireann Debate

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan: Information on Pádraig O'Sullivan Zoom on Pádraig O'Sullivan] That said, will the Minister comment on the well-being of our third level student population? The demand for additional mental health supports is well-documented in newspaper articles or studies undertaken at third level and the strain placed on existing services is obvious. It is estimated that the demand for mental health supports have more than doubled during the pandemic. Isolation and online learning have taken their toll in that respect but I understand why this is necessary. That said, can the Minister detail what additional supports have been made available for third level institutions throughout the pandemic in terms of additional counsellors, mental health supports, etc.?

The Minister mentioned earlier that the 50808 helpline, a HSE 24-7 service, is available for people suffering with mental health difficulties. Are other additional resources allocated to third level institutions?

My second question leads on from the first. I suppose the Minister might say I am being a little optimistic but I will ask all the same. It relates to return to on-campus activities in a staged manner, like what we heard today from the Minister for Education and the Minister of State with responsibility for special education. Is any section in the Department drawing up a plan or blueprint for the return to campuses throughout the country by the end of this academic year or to prepare for September?

My third question relates to dropouts numbers from college courses. Does the Minister have any details about whether this might suggest that the impact of Covid-19 or being off campus has led to an increase in the number of students dropping out from college?

My fourth question is for the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins. Earlier he referred to apprenticeships and upskilling, especially as we try to recover after Covid-19 in terms of strengthening and diversifying our economy. I welcome the Government's apprenticeship initiative and its extension to the summer of 2021 to provide for allowances for employers in taking on apprentices. That said, does he have any detail regarding how many apprentices have been taken on in 2020 and how this compares with previous years? Has there been an increase or decrease in that regard? I wish to emphasise the need for investment and prioritisation of apprenticeships in the leisure, food and hospitality sector post Covid-19. As we all know in this Chamber, these sectors of the economy have been worst hit and impacted. It would hearten many in those industries to hear what the Government's intentions are in that regard.

Deputy Simon Harris: Information on Simon Harris Zoom on Simon Harris My thanks to the Deputy. I assure him that I am following up on the point he made about bursaries in Cork in this significant year for Cork.

The Deputy asked about well-being. In addition to the helpline referenced by him, we have increased mental health funding by €3 million. I appreciate his support in that regard. We have also doubled the student assistance fund. There is usually €8 million in that fund and now there is €16 million. Sometimes well-being can be tied to economic well-being. As I said earlier in my opening statement, I am now establishing a group specifically to look at the well-being of students and to continue to monitor that. Rather than it being chaired by a departmental official, I want it to be chaired by students and the USI. That is important.

The Deputy referred to the return to campus. We have published a framework for what can be done at each of the levels of the plan to try to provide as much certainty as possible. We meet every Friday at 11 a.m. with our stakeholders, including students, university leaders, college leaders and those from the further education and training sectors. The first priority is to try to resume things that cannot be done online, including practicals, apprenticeship and supports for vulnerable learners. I hope we will be in a rather different academic year by the new academic year.

The Deputy also asked about dropouts. The HEA tells me that it has not seen a significant increase in dropouts. The number is similar to last year. The authority is due to provide me with a report which I would be happy to share with the Deputy.

Deputy Niall Collins: Information on Niall Collins Zoom on Niall Collins The Deputy asked about the numbers who took up the various apprenticeships. I do not have that detail to hand at the moment. Suffice it to say that during 2020 there was naturally a drop-off due to Covid-19 and the impact of the pandemic in terms of the number of people who took up apprenticeships and applied for apprenticeships. That was part of the reason we introduced the incentivisation scheme to which I alluded in my earlier remarks. I will respond to the Deputy and we will get him an exact breakdown on the numbers who entered each of the various apprenticeships across the range of apprenticeships during 2020 vis-à-vis 2019.

Deputy Mairéad Farrell: Information on Mairéad  Farrell Zoom on Mairéad  Farrell Le bliain anuas, is minic go raibh mic léinn ó Ollscoil na hÉireann, Gaillimh, agus Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, GMIT, i dteagmháil liom agus iad trína chéile mar gheall ar bhrú airgid, ar fhadhbanna lóistín agus ar an mbrú meabhairshláinte atá orthu de bharr na paindéime seo. Tá a fhios againn ar fad gur buille uafásach a bhí sa phaindéim seo orainn ar fad ach ba bhuille ar leith í ar dhaoine óga. Chaill an t-uafás acu a gcuid phost agus, ar ndóigh, stop a saoil shóisialta. The past year has been difficult for all of us but it has most certainly been a difficult year for young people. I have lost count of the number of students from NUI Galway and Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology who have been in contact with me about the extraordinary pressure they are under. They have told me of the real economic hardship they face and of the real impact it has had on their mental health. Many have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic and the social life that comes with going on to third level education is non-existent. The NUI Galway Students' Union has told me the feeling of isolation has become a major problem for many students. Of course, that is the antithesis of the experience of most of us at university.

I have raised with the Minister previously the issue of the repeat fee at NUI Galway. It still has not been rectified. In the middle of a pandemic when youth unemployment is at a height of 19.4%, students are being asked to cough up €295 for an examination that is free almost everywhere else. That is a considerable amount for students and it is not the kind of disposable income that most of them have. I call on the Minister to intervene urgently in this matter now, before we are in a crisis for so many students again.

This is not the only disadvantage facing students of NUI Galway. While other universities have made repeat examinations free, they have also extended time for deferrals and made it possible for students to resit examinations even if they have already passed. If a student needs a higher grade, the student can resit for free. This is the case in some universities but not others. The length of examination time has also been increased in some colleges but not others. There should be a unified approach. No one should be academically disadvantaged during this pandemic. When students graduate and join the workforce, they should be on a level playing field. It is unfair that policies at some universities are more favourable while other universities are not made to follow suit. I urge the Minister to consider this and what action may be taken.

Of course the cost of accommodation is bad and crippling in Galway city at the best of times. However, during the pandemic this has been exacerbated. One student wrote to me and said that for the summers between college she worked two jobs and saved 80% plus of the money she earned each summer to pay for going through college. She was also in receipt of the SUSI grant. Each time the college year ended she was in debt as the cost of accommodation crippled her year on year. There are plenty of other students in the same circumstances. Of course in Galway, there is an added stress on students since private providers of student accommodation have not returned money that they have been paid, amounting to up to €5,500 for unused accommodation. Again, we need action on this urgently.

I received another shocking account from a student nurse who was not being paid as a student nurse. She was unable to work a part-time job. Any money she received from SUSI, which was not much, went straight on rent. Then, when the pandemic hit, she had increased difficulty finding accommodation as people were concerned, naturally, about sharing with a student nurse. She ended up relying on the hardship fund. That is no solution when it comes to students in the private rented sector. A student hardship fund should not be going directly to landlords or on repeat examinations and college fees. We have another issue relating to the €224 levy being paid. Part of it is supposed to be going toward on-site services. It has to be paid. Will the Minister advise on whether he intends to meet private accommodation providers about refunding up to €5,500 to students? What is his view on whether some universities have more lenient policies regarding examinations while others do not? Will he contact NUI Galway regarding the €295 repeat fee?

Deputy Simon Harris: Information on Simon Harris Zoom on Simon Harris I know we are almost out of time. I will write to the Deputy. The short answer is that I will contact NUI Galway. Autonomy cannot be used as a fig leaf for inflexibility. I take the point she makes. In the interest of time, I will write back to her on the remaining matters.

Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: Information on Richard Boyd Barrett Zoom on Richard Boyd Barrett I am sharing time with Deputy Paul Murphy. I will take 50%. I will comment on the leaving certificate briefly. It was discussed earlier. There is no way the Government can guarantee the leaving certificate can happen in June. At the leaders' briefing, we asked Dr. Holohan whether the restrictions would be lifted by March. He said he could not possibly tell us and that he had no idea.

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