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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]  On the examinations, I want to see common sense, compassion and a bit of cop-on when it comes to flexibility. I think that will be forthcoming and I was encouraged by the comments of the Irish Universities Association in that regard.

In the interests of time I will send Deputy Devlin a written note on the once-off payment of €250 but it is going very well. The SUSI grant before Christmas gave a once-off bonus payment in December and colleges are now beginning to credit the accounts of non-SUSI students, so the process is very much under way. My Department is ready to assist the Department of Education on extra college places and is working very closely with it on that. We have an ambitious programme of capital development for the further education colleges. I agree with the Deputy's point about them needing that investment. I will send the Deputy written detail on that.

Deputy Niall Collins: Information on Niall Collins Zoom on Niall Collins I thank Deputies Devlin and Matthews for their queries on the subject of apprenticeships, which is a major part of our programme for Government. We are very keen, as a new Department, to destigmatise the apprenticeships area and put these centre stage in our further education and training sphere. We hope to make this a very viable, attractive and rewarding career path and way of finding job options for people.

The new apprenticeship action plan is in gestation and the consultation period has closed. There was a high level of engagement with the consultations and they are now being assessed. In essence, we want to see a very strong pipeline of apprenticeships and traineeships, and we want to grow that number significantly. The commitment in the programme is to grow those numbers between now and 2025 to approximately 10,000 per annum. As Deputy Matthews has referenced, we are keen to ramp up the number of green apprenticeships and to provide new apprenticeships in non-traditional areas. One of our most important commitments and concerns is to promote more gender balance in apprenticeships as there has been very poor representation of women. These are concerns of which we are aware and that we want to address.

Deputy Michael Collins: Information on Michael Collins Zoom on Michael Collins If the Minister cannot answer all my questions in the time available, he might respond to me in writing. What action will the Minister take to ensure the return of accommodation fees, which were paid in good faith at the start of the academic year, given that because of Covid-19 restrictions, the majority of third level colleges are carrying out lectures online and students are no longer availing of student accommodation and cannot attend college? What plans does the Minister have to provide a support package for struggling families and students who have paid significant accommodation costs to private providers and who cannot receive refunds?

We have been importing over 85% of our fruit and vegetables into Ireland, most of which could be produced here while providing much higher incomes for Irish farmers while reducing environmentally costly transport for those items from abroad. The recent potatoes for chips scandal before Christmas is only one such example of an over-reliance on imports and long-term mismanagement of the horticultural sector. I am told most of this stems from a lack of support and prioritisation at the higher education level for horticulture. Will the Minister please tell me what plans there are for higher education for horticulture and those opportunities for Irish farmers, especially in places like west Cork?

There may also be opportunities for student placement programmes, as certificates in agriculture at Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, levels 5 and 6, are due to come in shortly. I am aware a 16-week placement on a farm is part of a level 6 programme but in current circumstances, going ahead with such action in the midst of a serious pandemic would be both reckless and unwise. For the duration of this pandemic year, students should have the option to complete their placement on their family farm, thus eliminating risks to their health, the health of their family and that of the family where the placement would occur. Will the Minister deal with this extremely important issue with immediate effect, as the health and livelihoods of many farmers and the future generations of farmers is at risk if it is not dealt with?

What supports are in place for families who cannot access broadband, particularly when they have students in higher education?

Deputy Mattie McGrath: Information on Mattie McGrath Zoom on Mattie McGrath I wish the Minister and the Minister of State the very best in this dynamic and interesting portfolio. Sixth-year students of last year and those in first year this year have had a very traumatic time. Their families have had a traumatic time. It has not been easy on any of those in the third level sector either. There are difficulties arising from non-return of fees. Parents have been put to the pin of their collar trying to pay these fees. I have experience of this, with a first year student myself this year. I know the difficulties arising in trying to study at home. They will rise to the challenge. Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí.

I strongly support a university in the south east and we badly need it. There is also an application before Tipperary County Council for relocation and development of Limerick Institute of Technology in Tipperary to a new campus in the old Kickham Barracks. It must be progressed as well.

I would also like to get a list of apprenticeships, as the area must be broadened. We need these apprentices badly in the building, farming and agricultural and plant hire industries. I spoke to the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, about this a minute ago. As those areas are finding it difficult to get skilled operatives and people with degrees, we must enhance and broaden the scope of apprenticeships.

I welcome the review of SUSI and thank the officials there. I also thank Geraldine Kelly in my office for dealing with them, as we are trying to assist so many families. There must be a review of the 45 km rule, as it can be very cruel. I heard a Deputy earlier speaking about a student who would have to give ten hours travelling to a college for four or five hours of work. This affects rural areas where there is no public transport.

I promise the Minister and Minister of State the support of the Rural Independent Group in helping students from rural Ireland in particular but all across the country. Those in rural Ireland are handicapped because of poor broadband and rural transport. Will the Minister and Minister of State answer some of those questions? Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí. They need our support. They will be the leaders of tomorrow and into the future. While they will not forget this time, I believe they will rise over it.

Deputy Simon Harris: Information on Simon Harris Zoom on Simon Harris Deputy Mattie McGrath is right to end on a positive note. As tough as this time is, we and the next generation will bounce back from this and we must all support them in that regard. Deputies Michael Collins and Mattie McGrath raised the very important matter of student accommodation and I will make a couple of points on it.

With college-owned accommodation, I expect universities and colleges to be flexible and give refunds where students have not been able to use the accommodation through no fault of their own. I note that some students, for a variety of legitimate reasons, have decided to take up that accommodation. Perhaps they might not have the space or opportunity to learn at home.

We need much more publicly owned or campus-owned accommodation and we will come forward with plans in that regard. We are still too reliant on the private market, which in many ways pits students against other people trying to rent accommodation. We have doubled the size of the student assistance fund, which is for students who have fallen on particular hardship. There is €16 million in that fund this year and it is available through all college access offices. I encourage the Deputies to direct their constituents to that.

I thank Deputy Michael Collins for the point he made relating to horticulture. I will make specific inquiries of the Higher Education Authority and come back to him in that regard and on the matter of placements. I am asking all bodies to provide flexibility and common sense on placements so nobody loses out at this time.

Both Deputies referenced broadband and I announced in my opening statement our plans to roll out eduroam broadband to 90 more locations across the country. It is clearly a major issue. On the SUSI review, I take the point about the non-adjacent rate and its impact on people in rural Ireland. There will be an opportunity for the Deputies to make submissions when we open to public consultations very shortly. I will look at the application from Tipperary mentioned by Deputy Mattie McGrath and revert to him.

Deputy Niall Collins: Information on Niall Collins Zoom on Niall Collins Deputy Mattie McGrath correctly queried the range of apprenticeships. I will furnish all Deputies with the full range of approved apprenticeship schemes that are in place and available. We are anxious to create new apprenticeships in a range of new areas, and that will be a central tenet of the apprenticeship action plan, which we referred to a number of times in this session. It will be published shortly.

Deputy Marian Harkin: Information on Marian Harkin Zoom on Marian Harkin I raise the question of the Connacht-Ulster alliance, as I have done on many previous occasions.

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