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

Thursday, 14 January 2021

Dáil Éireann Debate

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Simon Harris: Information on Simon Harris Zoom on Simon Harris] Rather than anyone asking what this or that county will get, the city and county of Waterford will see additional benefit in terms of investment, campus size, course range and research. I am very eager and determined that will happen if it is to be a university of the worth that we all want it to be, and that is very much the case. I look forward to engaging with the Deputy, some of his colleagues, and some of the people from the south-east he introduced me to in the coming days.

Deputy Steven Matthews: Information on Steven  Matthews Zoom on Steven  Matthews I will share my time with Deputy Devlin. We will have five and a half minutes each.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Ó Fearghaíl Zoom on Seán Ó Fearghaíl Is that agreed? Agreed.

Deputy Steven Matthews: Information on Steven  Matthews Zoom on Steven  Matthews It is an extremely difficult year for students. The Minister acknowledged that in his opening contribution, as have many speakers in today's debate. There are difficulties across the entire education system for students of all ages. I acknowledge that all the staff, teachers, lecturers and support and administrative staff in both the Departments of Education and Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science are working as hard as they can to try to bring some normality and quality of learning experience to students and I thank them for their work.

I want to ask the Minister about first-year students at third level. They went through a very difficult time last year with the leaving certificate and the uncertainty surrounding it and they are mostly sitting at home in their bedrooms on Zoom meetings. They are experiencing another very difficult year in their education. They are missing out on important aspects of their first year in college - the social aspect, making new friends, sports, and on-campus activities - the parts that help students adjust to a new educational cycle. First year is often less about the subject matter that one is studying than the adjustment to a new way of learning. It is nobody's fault that these aspects are not available now, and I hope the students will make up for it over the remainder of their degree.

However, in the best of times, first year can be a difficult year for students. That is evident in the failure rates and drop-out rates. There is often a realisation that a person may have chosen the wrong subject and he or she tries to change. I am very concerned, having spoken to students and parents, that we may have a higher drop-out rate this year than previously due to Covid and the real difficulty of trying to attend lectures and complete course work in one's bedroom. I note the Minister said there has not been a higher drop-out rate, but I ask him to keep a close eye on that because it tends to happen in the period after Christmas between January and April.

There are difficulties too for second-year, third-year and final-year students around project work, group work and placements. I am concerned that there has not been enough direct communications with students. The Minister can correct me if I am wrong, but from talking to students I get the feeling that a lot of them feel isolated. They feel they are on their own and they are the only ones having this difficulty when we know from the number of emails and contact we get that it is across the board. Many students are struggling and if they knew how many others were involved they would know that we are all in this together. I ask the Minister if he, the Minister, Deputy Foley, and the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, would communicate directly with students across the country to say to them that we know how difficult this is for them. We realise that they are under stress and have to work in ways that are not ideal. We can tell them that they are not alone. We should acknowledge that they need help and support and that we will provide it for anyone that needs it. We must assure them that a lenient and understanding approach will be taken to their exams or assessment, in whatever form they take place, given the difficulties they have encountered this year. These students have worked hard to get where they are and we need to make every effort to keep them in the education system. We do not want to let them drop out or to lose the connection with them. We must ensure they stay in the system and that when things return to normal it can offer them all the aspects they missed out on over the past 12 months.

My second question is probably for the Minister of State. It is about the apprenticeship opportunities for the highly ambitious and necessary retrofitting of our housing stock. We have a target in the programme for Government to retrofit 500,000 houses. This will bring thousands of job opportunities for long-term, decent, well-paid jobs in many trades. I refer to insulating our houses, making them airtight, improving ventilation, fitting heat exchangers, getting rid of the draughty, damp homes we have around the country, and creating a better quality of life and comfort as well as improvements to health, especially respiratory health. People's quality of life and comfort really improves when they have an energy-insulated house. There are opportunities to fit heat pumps and smart technologies to manage how we heat our homes, cut fuel bills and reduce harmful emissions, and in doing so we will also improve external air quality. We have seen poor air quality across Dublin in recent weeks.

The installation of solar photovoltaic systems and battery banks will allow us to produce our own electricity. A public consultation was launched today by the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications on the fact that people will have the opportunity now to sell back into the grid. Microgeneration communities and farmers can create their own electricity, which can be fed back into the smart grid and they can earn money for it. There is also an opportunity with electric vehicles, EVs, as we roll out a fleet of electric vehicles. They can work in two ways. They can be charged from solar power or there is technology to allow them to feed back into the grid. That is how our future housing stock will be built and we need to ensure that we have the skilled workforce to meet the challenge to change 500,000 homes in Ireland to this standard but also to be able to build the 30,000 homes a year that we need to build. Could the Minister of State outline his ambition to create apprenticeships and training courses and how to encourage the take-up of these opportunities, in addition to how that should include mature apprenticeships and upskilling across all employment sectors?

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Ó Fearghaíl Zoom on Seán Ó Fearghaíl If it is okay ,we will hear from Deputy Devlin and then the Ministers can respond at the end.

Deputy Cormac Devlin: Information on Cormac Devlin Zoom on Cormac Devlin I thank the Ministers for their attendance. I have questions for both of them. I welcome the opportunity to discuss the impact the pandemic has had on the higher education sector. As we have heard both in this session and in the earlier session, Covid has had a devastating impact on the education sector as a whole. Lectures and tutorials have gone online. Events and sports events have been cancelled and students and staff have had to work from home. I had a conversation recently with a group of third level students who were envious of the second level students in the latter half of 2020 because they were in school. This has had a great impact on the well-being of students and academic staff alike. That must be recognised. While restrictions are justified, I look forward to everyone being able to return to some degree of normality as soon as possible, as I am sure my colleagues do as well. In the meantime, the Government must continue to support students and the higher education sector. One positive initiative in budget 2021 was the Covid-19 once-off emergency grant for students. Could the Minister provide an update on the progress of the roll-out of that?

SUSI has a key role to play in grants. I ask the Minister to take any necessary steps to ensure more flexibility is provided to that organisation. Concerns have been raised with Deputies about SUSI and Springboard over the summer. I tabled parliamentary questions to him in that regard. I hope that these issues are resolved and that the system will run smoothly from next September.

Turning to the class of 2021, as I mentioned in the earlier session with the Minister for Education, this year's leaving certificate students have been disproportionately impacted by Covid-19. Not only did they miss three months in their fifth year, but they missed at least a month this year, owing to the restrictions. I hope the situation will be such that they can be offered the opportunity to sit the leaving certificate. However, some would prefer the option of predicted grades. The Minister has a key role in easing their anxiety in his comments and statements. Third level institutions could ease the pressure on Central Applications Office, CAO, points by producing more general entry programmes and increasing the places, where possible. I note the Minister's comments in that regard. This would take significant pressure off those students and I hope it can be considered. Could he give an update on those plans?

I wish to ask about the capital programme for education and training boards, ETBs, and further education colleges. The Minister might come back to me with a written reply. Many of the colleges are in older buildings and they need investment. I would like to hear his thoughts on the matter.

The Minister of State mentioned apprenticeships in his opening remarks. He has done fantastic work in that regard. The apprenticeship incentivisation scheme provides a €3,000 grant for employers. I understand 1,358 employers took up that offer, with 2,350 apprenticeships. He might send me the breakdown by sector of those figures.

Deputy Simon Harris: Information on Simon Harris Zoom on Simon Harris I thank Deputy Matthews. I could not agree more with his comments on first-year college students. These are leaving certificate students from last year, who last sat in a classroom in March 2020. Against all the odds and all the challenges, they got themselves into college and now, as he rightly said, they are finding courses being done from the bedroom, the box room or the kitchen table. It is extremely difficult for them. Subject to the behaviour of the virus, I have not given up hope of trying to at least arrive at a point where first-year students could be invited in to see their campus, to get a sense of what college will be like, to feel connected to the institution and to know that the current college situation is not forever. That will very much depend on how the virus goes.

I will keep a very close eye on the drop-out rate. I take his point in that regard. I would not in any way be complacent or cocky about that, but the initial indications are that it is correlating with last year. I await an update from the HEA.

Direct communication with students is important. I raised this last week when I met USI representatives and also the representative bodies of the colleges. We asked the colleges and the student unions to identify how best to do that. We do not want to bombard people with lots of communication or another email to read. Deputy Matthews is correct: it is time to try to wrap our arms around all of the supports that are there and put one, easily digestible communication in place in that regard.

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