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

Thursday, 14 January 2021

Dáil Éireann Debate

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: Information on Richard Boyd Barrett Zoom on Richard Boyd Barrett] There is therefore no way the Minister can remove the stress and uncertainty from students other than by saying they will not be forced to sit the exam. Where the Minister comes in, it seems to me, is offering an alternative that would allow open access for everybody to higher level and third level education. He should start now by establishing where the current cohort of leaving certificate students want to go. He should find out where they want to go and see how many places we have and then work out how many additional places would be needed to accommodate them in the courses of their choice. That is what we should do. That would remove the stress, allow everyone to advance and provide certainty. By the way, in some countries they do that as a matter of course. They just let people go to higher education, and if they cannot manage the course, they drop out of it.

Fees of any description are unconscionable at the moment, particularly when we need more nurses, student nurses, doctors and engineers at a whole range of levels. When the ability of families and students to earn income is greatly diminished, and when the quality of the education experience is greatly diminished, how can the Minister possibly justify fees? We should remove all fees.

Lastly, I wish to ask the Minister about the student nurses. I think 6,000 healthcare workers have been out since Christmas. Student nurses will now once again be working just as they did all last year and they are offered the insulting amount of €100. This is at the same time as the Secretary General of the Department of Health gets a €90,000 pay increase to make an unbelievable salary of €290,000. I want the Minister to answer this. One of the arguments he has used is that one can have either an apprentice programme that is paid or a degree but one cannot have both. Student nurses have informed me that student paramedics are getting €28,000 a year for a degree course as we speak. How come student nurses cannot get that? In construction engineering in the University of Limerick one is paid €12 an hour for doing frankly less dangerous work than student nurses are doing. How come it can happen there? One can have a degree and quality education and get paid, and now is the time to give that to the student nurses.

Deputy Paul Murphy: Information on Paul Murphy Zoom on Paul Murphy Tens of thousands of young people are at home right now and looking to go to further education in September. They are anxious as to how places will be allocated and anxious as to whether they will be able to get a place. Last year, after a massive campaign by school students, the Government promised extra places to remove some of the pressure on students applying through the CAO system. This year we face a similar crisis, but now the Government has plenty of advance notice and time to invest in a serious expansion of third level to let all sixth year students know there are places for them and to help to remove the stress they are going through. It is absolutely clear the leaving certificate cannot go ahead as normal this year. It would be not only unsafe but also deeply unfair on the students. It would pile massive stresses onto people already struggling to cope. This is a year group that has faced massive disruption to both their two years of leaving certificate study: studying from home, coping with isolation, the stresses of the pandemic and, in some cases, students themselves getting the virus and missing classes. Yet the Government seems to want to put the institution of the leaving certificate before the mental and physical health of the students. Last year the compulsory leaving certificate was cancelled and students were given a choice between predicted grades and sitting exams. This year students are demanding exactly the same. Students are getting organised and speaking out on social media, and that self-organisation of students is how they will win.

The Government needs to take action now and accept that the leaving certificate cannot go ahead as normal. The students are calling for a choice between predicted grades and exams which are updated to take account of the circumstances. It is time the Government listened to the students. It is their future, it is their choice. Even before this pandemic, the leaving certificate was a horrendous way to treat young people, creating huge mental health pressures and incorporating a deep inequality. It follows an outdated model of rote learning rather than encouraging critical, independent thought. It should be abolished and instead we should invest in third level education in order that everybody who wants to access it can do so. The Minister's Department has a crucial role to play in addressing this. The more college education is expanded, the closer we are to getting rid of the rat race of too many applicants chasing after too few places and the massive stresses that results in. Will the Minister invest now to ensure that come September there are enough places available for students?

Deputy Simon Harris: Information on Simon Harris Zoom on Simon Harris I always appreciate people helping to advocate investment in higher education, and yes, I will. Last year saw the largest ever increase in the number of higher education places in our country. Many Deputies opposite were rightly concerned, as was I, that that would be a one-year-only investment. We have managed to ensure that all the extra places we put into the third level system last year will be available again this year, with 2,000 additional places on top of that. We are expanding and growing the higher education sector at a rate at which we have never done before. Policy on the leaving certificate does, obviously, reside with the Minister for Education, but Deputy Murphy is right that my Department's role is to make sure we have as many places available for people as possible.

Deputy John Lahart: Information on John Lahart Zoom on John Lahart I wish the Ceann Comhairle and his staff a belated happy new year. I welcome the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Collins.

In July 2019 I attended a speech delivered by the Taoiseach, Deputy Micheál Martin, who was then leader of the Opposition, in Dublin to the heads of universities and colleges in Ireland. He reflected on the theme of innovation and research in education in Ireland and its political roots in the ascent of Seán Lemass to the position of Taoiseach. During that morning he outlined his vision for higher education, research and innovation in Ireland and committed to establishing the first dedicated Cabinet position and separate Department of Government for higher education, research and innovation should he become Taoiseach. The speech was very well received on the day and, true to his word, on election as Taoiseach, Deputy Martin established for the first time in Ireland a Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science with a full Cabinet Minister and Minister of State. Deputy Harris is that Minister, and my able colleague from Limerick, Deputy Niall Collins, is Minister of State. Given the emphasis the Taoiseach placed on science, education and research, and given the critical importance he emphasises and places on this area of Government, it cannot have been easy when Cabinet allocations dictated that political oversight and leadership of that Department would have to be ceded to a member of a rival party. However, the overriding importance of the establishment of this Department rightly trumped any political partisanship.

Fianna Fáil is rightly proud of its pioneering role in education in Ireland. It is just one of the many areas of policy where we have left a positive, groundbreaking and enduring footprint. The establishment of a new education Department dedicated to higher education, research, innovation and science is a recognition of the vital work that is required to ensure that everyone, regardless of background, has a chance to achieve his or her potential beyond schooling and will be equipped to do so. It is also a recognition that without innovation and research, Ireland will fall behind in the world, lose its most talented and fail to harness the practical and intellectual genius of our people. With this Department Ireland can continue to be a world leader, to go boldly into new exciting areas of discovery and knowledge and to harness all our people's talents. The Taoiseach appointed Deputy Harris as Minister with responsibility for higher education. None of my colleagues serving with the Minister at Cabinet cross the boundary into his domain as Minister of this Department. He is a very bright politician and I believe he will do very well here. An emerging generation is depending on him for their very futures. He is also held in high public esteem for his stewardship of the health portfolio during the most challenging of times. Another occasion might allow for a robust interrogation of his tenure of that Department, but right now that is neither desirable nor necessary. No doubt leaving the Department of Health was a wrench for him.

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