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

Thursday, 14 January 2021

Dáil Éireann Debate

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy John Lahart: Information on John Lahart Zoom on John Lahart] However, for now the Department of Health has been entrusted to my party colleague, Deputy Donnelly. He is just six months into his first Cabinet position. While Deputy Harris, as Minister for Health, faced the enormous challenges of the onset of Covid-19, the Government was supported by all parties. Notwithstanding reservations around some communications, punches were pulled, people swallowed hard at times and lips were bitten. Why? Because the situation required it and the national interest demanded it. The challenges facing the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, are enormous. An unparalleled surge in the virus; an angry, frustrated, anxious, fearful and restless public is holding its breath for a vaccine; a baying Opposition; and the unprecedented logistical and practical challenge of ensuring the successful roll-out of that vaccine.

No Minister is perfect. Each has idiosyncrasies but once again the times require that Cabinet Government, in particular, stands united, acts collectively and supports one another. The national interest requires no more on this occasion than it did last year.

As the Minister is aware, this Government arrangement was not my first choice but it was the choice of the majority of my colleagues and for that reason I support the Minister in the challenges that he faces. He has the task of preparing a path for those students who have been stranded remotely for a year, missing out on much of the magical third and fourth level educational life.

Another challenge is to expand and promote innovation in the next chapter of apprenticeships in ensuring that we can deliver new homes and a green revolution, among other goals.

In returning to my original theme of the period of progressive policy innovation, I know that the Minister will agree that the period which was ushered in by Seán Lemass remains unmatched to this day. The bar was set high but we and all associated with this Government must aspire to surpass it. I support the Minister and his Minister of State in this Government as do all of my party colleagues. We want success for him in his position as Minister and our colleague, the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, deserves no less.

When we see Covid-19 in our rear view mirror, a period of sustained, pent-up, dynamic and frenetic activity awaits this country, if we are ready to meet it. The challenges are considerable. This is where the Minister’s leadership is necessary. If a fair wind blows against the virus and behind the vaccine in the immediate future, could third level students envisage any return this year to live college on-campus tuition? Can he inform the Dáil whether or not there has been an adverse impact to date on existing apprenticeship programmes? How are plans proceeding for the creative and innovative expansion of those programmes and when can students at second level begin to take advantage of them? Where and in what direction does the Minister see new apprenticeship programmes being oriented? How does the Minister propose to increase the awfully poor rate of participation by women in our programmes and what accounts for that lack of participation in the Minister's view? When will we be in a position to see dramatic increases in participation rates and apprenticeship offerings?

We talk so much these days about the cloud and I am proud to say that the cloud is in Tallaght and when Covid-19 is behind us the Minister is warmly invited to come out and see it at first-hand. Amazon Web Services, AWS, has developed amazing synergy with the local authority and the local hospital so that a child in Tallaght can now attend primary school, secondary school, attend Technological University Dublin, undertake a bespoke course connected and designed in conjunction with AWS and get a job right on his or her doorstep. The Minister might expand either in writing or down the road on what kind of other bespoke opportunities may be there.

The private sector has traditionally always been asked to lead on apprenticeships. During the crash, however, I often saw the potential of local authorities and particular Government Departments or semi-State agencies being able to offer to lead in this area. We can look at local authorities, for example, in librarianship, and there are State agencies like Teagasc and Coillte which should also bear responsibility for leading and innovating in that.

As to international experience, I am aware that different economies make different demands on their people but in Denmark up to 11% of the work force has come through apprenticeships. In the UK a commission was established, the objective and goal of which was that by the time it had completed its work every parent might consider the idea of an apprenticeship for their child, which might not necessarily be followed through on. Some 45% of apprentices in Denmark are women. One of the things that I was really excited about was that one could embark upon an apprenticeship at more or less any age of one’s life, up to the age of 60. What are the Minister’s ideas on this?

I would love to be Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. He has the opportunity to ride the wave of a post Covid-19 environment where there will be so much pent-up excitement, energy and dynamism just waiting to take off. It is an opportunity to set a blistering post Covid-19 pace that carries everyone along with it and leaves no one behind. I thank the Ceann Comhairle.

Deputy Simon Harris: Information on Simon Harris Zoom on Simon Harris I thank Deputy Lahart. I read the speech the Taoiseach gave to the Irish Universities Association, IUA. We have joked about how it must be peculiar for a Fine Gael Minister to have read and now praised a then Leader of the Opposition’s speech, but it is a very fine speech. While Deputy Lahart rightly refers to the tremendously positive contribution that the late Seán Lemass made to this country, what most struck me from that speech was the contribution of Paddy Hillery. The Taoiseach referred in that speech to not enough having been spoken about the positive contribution that Paddy Hillery made during his period as Minister for Education because he indeed went on to do so many other wonderful things, including serving as our President. The Taoiseach and I have agreed in conversations that in many ways that speech is a manifesto for all that we collectively want to achieve. We have much to do in this Department and I will follow up on all of the Deputy’s ideas and respond to him in writing.

I am also very conscious that I am a Member of a Cabinet and have a responsibility, as does every Cabinet Member, to contribute constructively to our national response to Covid-19. I am also an elected representative for the people of Wicklow and also have a responsibility to raise their concerns at my parliamentary party meetings. We have much to do. We have a strong Government with a strong working majority and programme and I am excited about what the future has to offer.

Deputy Claire Kerrane: Information on Claire Kerrane Zoom on Claire Kerrane Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCeann Comhairle. I am delighted to contribute to these statements. I am very conscious, as I do so, of the many young people right across the State who have missed out on so much both last year and this year. I was lucky enough to go to college. I attended NUI Galway, thanks to many sacrifices made by my parents. The experience that I had is the experience that has been missed both last year and this year by so many students and I am very conscious of that as we discuss this issue.

I begin by raising concerns about the private accommodation providers. I am aware that this has been raised at length not just today but previously. I find it a great shame that there are private accommodation providers out there behaving in this way. I am dealing with one such provider in Galway and also with a family which has spent over €5,000 for that accommodation place for their son. It is very regrettable that these private accommodation providers could not have stepped up and have allowed a refund or to have come to some arrangement with parents. We all know that so many parents out there sacrifice so much. Some have to get loans and go to their local credit union but they always, in as much as is possible, find a way to secure that place and accommodation for their son and daughter. Many students will also work part-time to try to help along the way. While I know that when it comes to private accommodation providers it is more difficult for the Minister to intervene in the same way as he might be able to with perhaps college-owned campuses, I ask, nonetheless, that he use this opportunity to call on these private accommodation providers to do the right thing.

I welcome the review that is underway of SUSI. I would really like to see some discretion exercised in the way that it makes decisions. I am referring in particular to the adjacent rule, that is the distance that someone lives from college. This is particularly important in rural areas where one might not live that far away from the college but the lack of public transport to get there creates so many added problems for students.

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