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Young People and Access to Further and Higher Education: Motion [Private Members] (Continued)

Thursday, 11 March 2021

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 1005 No. 2

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Paul Murphy: Information on Paul Murphy Zoom on Paul Murphy] There are many examples that can be given to show the wealth exists for us to be able to do this. I wrote an article recently outlining the case for a Covid tax. In a number of ways we could raise over €20 billion in terms of trying to tax some of those who have benefited from the Covid situation. The point is, the wealth exists to do it. It is a political choice not to do it.

I congratulate the Union of Students in Ireland, USI, for the Education for All campaign. In a way, this is a part of that campaign which was launched last week. It is clear this motion will be voted down by the Government. Presumably, unfortunately, the Green Party Deputies will go along with that, together with the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael Deputies, but that is not the end of the campaign. The reason nominally free education - the free fees in terms not of the capitation fee but the original fee - was done away with is precisely because there was a student movement which pushed for it. That is what we need to build again.

I will conclude with one point on the postgraduate workers, which I have raised a number of times with the Minister. It is a disgrace that our universities are using unpaid labour by way of postgraduate workers and the Government is turning a blind eye to it. Last October, the Minister admitted it was common for PhD researchers to have to do five hours of teaching a week. Nobody should be working unpaid in our universities. It is time to recognise the work of these postgraduate workers, not just their teaching work, but their research work, and to pay them a living wage with proper employment contracts and rights. The Minister said previously to me he would be happy to engage with the Postgraduate Workers' Alliance and he spoke about a group bringing people together, but the alliance has not heard anything further on it. Will the Minister make contact with the Postgraduate Workers' Alliance?

Deputy Gino Kenny: Information on Gino Kenny Zoom on Gino Kenny The Minister recently stated he wants to see access to third level education for all. That is very admirable, but is it achievable? Covid has shone a light on many areas over the past 15 months. In particular, it has shone a light on a leaving certificate that is outdated and antiquated. The intense competition for third level places shows up the leaving certificate for what it is. It defeats the purpose of education. Education is supposed to be enjoyed. It is about educating ourselves. The leaving certificate has become something very different. It is a points race for those who want to access third level education.

Education should be open to all regardless of income. Education inequality goes to the heart of income inequality in this country. Deputy Murphy spoke about postcodes in Dublin. The following is a great example in that regard. A student living in Dublin 6 has a 99% chance of going on to third level education, whereas for a student living in Dublin 10, the chances of going on to third level education are 16%. Even in terms of postcodes, particularly in Dublin, there is educational apartheid. This is applicable across the prison system as well in that the vast majority of people who are in prison are from certain areas of Dublin. This goes to the heart of the class system.

I want to speak about my own experience. I sat my leaving certificate examination in 1990, which is 31 years ago. Less than 3% of my class went on to third level education. In 2020-2021 more than 30% will go on to third level education. That is very positive. There are a number of factors at play. The culture has changed in working-class areas, access to education has changed, especially around institutes of technology, ITs, and the culture of the school has changed, with teachers now telling students they can be good and that they can go beyond what they are. There are still many barriers to access to education in terms of income and fees. Even when in that education sphere, there are still barriers for working-class students.

On the CAO points and places for nursing and midwifery, the Minister should take on this issue during his time as Minister with responsibility for education. Incredibly, there are 1,800 places available on the nursing and midwifery course, yet 6,000 students chose it as their first preference, which means that course is oversubscribed. Students want to engage in that vocation. They have seen in the past year in particular how that vocation has stepped up to the plate and served us all. If the 1,800 places were doubled to 3,600 places, we would gain 1,800 additional nurses, who on qualification could be offered a €10,000 per annum incentive to remain in the Irish public health system. This is done in Scotland. These are good things we can do rather than continue to recruit nurses from different parts of the world, although those who have come here have done amazing work. Let us look to what can be done to keep our nurses here rather than emigrating.

Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science (Deputy Simon Harris): Information on Simon Harris Zoom on Simon Harris I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after “Dáil Éireann” and substitute the following:

“notes that:

— the establishment of the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science is a clear demonstration of the strength of the Government’s commitment to deliver on the far-reaching goals for the entire tertiary education system strongly articulated in the Programme for Government - Our Shared Future;

— at the heart of this commitment, as set out in the recently published Statement of Strategy 2021-2023 for the new Department, is the objective of ensuring that Ireland’s further and higher education and research systems support everyone, regardless of their age, gender or address, in achieving their full potential;

— the Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted the lives of young people but, in general, both young people and students continue to respond superbly, adopting new approaches that ensure the continuity of their learning and demonstrating high levels of attention to public health guidance to ensure their own safety and that of their friends, families and communities;

— a comprehensive crisis response has been implemented across the further and higher education sectors, involving a partnership between the Government, educational institutions/providers, staff and students;

— continuity of education and research has been maintained throughout the pandemic with provision primarily online other than where onsite attendance is essential;

— in summer 2020, the Government provided a €168 million package of supports for further and higher education institutions and students, to cover costs incurred by institutions during the 2019/20 year and to provide further supports for the current academic year;

— this includes expansion of mental health supports through the student counselling service, a doubling of the Student Assistance Fund and provision of devices and other equipment to assist disadvantaged students;

— additional supports were provided in Budget 2021, including a financial contribution of €250 to each full-time undergraduate student in publicly funded institutions costing €50 million, an €8 million Mitigating Educational Disadvantage Fund for the further education and community education sectors, enhanced Student Universal Support Ireland (SUSI) grant supports for postgraduate students and increased support for the Programme for Access to Higher Education (PATH) access initiative to increase participation in higher education from the most economically disadvantaged students; and

- for the 2021/22 SUSI scheme, the fee grant for postgraduate students will rise from €2,000 to €3,500 and the income threshold for eligibility for these grants will increase from €31,500 to €54,240; and

furthermore, notes that:

— a review of the SUSI scheme has commenced, as committed to in the Programme for Government, which will consider issues such as grant rates, income thresholds, adjacency rates, postgraduate supports and part-time provision;

— the State currently provides very substantial financial support to undergraduate students in higher education towards the cost of their studies and this commitment is demonstrated through the Free Fees Initiative under which the Exchequer currently contributes €340 million to meeting the tuition fee costs of eligible undergraduate students in higher education, and in addition, the Exchequer pays the student contribution of €3,000 per annum in full or part, through SUSI, for approximately 44 per cent of students at a cost of over €180 million;

— a comprehensive economic evaluation of the funding options presented in the report of the Expert Group on Future Funding for Higher Education entitled ‘Investing in National Ambition: A Strategy for Funding Higher Education’ is underway, supported by the European Commission Directorate-General for Structural Reform Support programme, and this review is expected to be concluded over the first half of this year and will support an informed debate on the future planning and funding of higher and further education provision;

— significant progress has been made under the third National Plan for Equity of Access to Higher Education 2015-2021 and work on the development of a new national access plan for 2022-2026 is already underway;

— a National Student Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Framework is in place to address issues of student mental health and an additional €5 million in funding for student mental health supports was provided last year, and the Psychological Counsellors in Higher Education in Ireland (PCHEI) partnership through Text 50808 (a free 24-hour text service) allows students who are suffering from distress or mental health issues to speak with counsellors and access supports, and also a Student and Learner Wellbeing and Engagement Working Group has been established to monitor student wellbeing arising from the pandemic, review the implementation of existing measures and identify further initiatives;

— the Government is fully implementing ‘Sharing the Vision: A Mental Health Policy for Everyone’, including its comprehensive approach to improving the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS);

— actions taken to support the provision of student accommodation include:
— legislation to extend rent predictability measures to students residing in student-specific accommodation in rent pressure zones and to bring student accommodation under the Residential Tenancies Board (RTB), giving students access to the RTB’s dispute resolution procedures;

— empowering the Housing Finance Agency (HFA) to lend directly to higher education institutions for the development of new student accommodation, with a total of €157 million in loans for higher education institutions approved by the HFA; and

— the active engagement by the university sector on accommodation refunds, with all universities confirming that students who opted to leave their university-owned student accommodation as a result of reduced on-campus activity will be offered refunds or rental credits;
— the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment is finalising its report on reform of the Senior Cycle, and this review will encompass the wider purposes of the Senior Cycle including the aim that it should continue to educate the whole person and help every student to become more enriched, engaged and competent as they further develop their knowledge, skills, values and dispositions in an integrated way, reflecting the fact that higher education is just one of the pathways that students follow after completion of the Leaving Certificate;

— the Government strongly recognises the value and benefit of an integrated tertiary education system with the availability of diverse pathways for all learners and is committed to promoting the complementary roles of further and higher education and facilitating enhanced information for school-leavers and for all seeking learning opportunities, providing a wider choice at transition points and enabling progression pathways across and between different institutions;

— the Government continues to invest to provide additional student places in higher education, with €18 million provided in Budget 2021 for this purpose for the academic year commencing September 2021, resulting in overall investment of nearly €80 million to address demographic pressures since 2018, ensuring that a higher proportion of Central Applications Process (CAO) applicants secure a place on one of their top three CAO options, and these places to meet demographic need are in addition to the 1,330 additional places commencing in 2021, funded through the Human Capital Initiative Pillar 2, which will be on undergraduate courses in areas of priority skills needs;

— the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science is working with the Higher Education Authority (HEA), higher education institutions, Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI) and professional regulators, to identify further interventions that may be required to assist with additional places, and the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science will update the Government on this in April;

— the Government will shortly finalise an action plan on apprenticeships, promoting uptake in a growing range of apprenticeships as an attractive educational and career choice for increasing numbers of young people;

— a Researcher Career Development Framework has been introduced by the universities and Budget 2021 provided funding for increased opportunities for early career researchers and a 16 per cent increase in the Irish Research Council’s Postgraduate Scholarship Programme stipend;

— the Minister has advised the House that his Department is engaged with the HEA and sectoral stakeholders, to gather information on the teaching duties of PhD students and relevant funding arrangements and consideration will be given to this matter by a sub-group of the National Advisory Forum for Ireland’s National Framework for Doctoral Education;

— the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform are currently updating the Employment Control Framework within which individual higher education institutions manage their staffing;

— legislative proposals to reform the Higher Education Authority Act 1971 will be brought forward, to ensure that the higher education sector is enabled to meet the vision for an excellent higher education and research system which is innovative, adaptive and inclusive and which contributes to social, economic and cultural development; and

— this comprehensive programme of reforms clearly demonstrates the Government’s ambition for a high-quality tertiary education system which supports everyone to achieve their full potential.”

I am sharing time with my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins. I welcome this debate. I genuinely thank Deputy Boyd Barrett and his colleagues for putting down this motion. We have had an opportunity to discuss these issues in the House today and yesterday. I would guess were it not for the Deputy seeking that time, and I acknowledge that, but perhaps also if we did not have a dedicated Department, we may not be having this level of focus on the issues. I genuinely welcome that.

  While we may not agree on everything in terms of how we get there, I do share the ambition in terms of removing barriers to access to further and higher education. Deputy Kenny made a fair point. The following is not a political point because I was not in government at the time. We have seen a lot of progress made in our country over recent decades in terms of access, but we do have a lot more to do. Deputy Boyd Barrett said he wants to see a radical overhaul in this area; so do I. I genuinely want to see a radical overhaul of how people get from second level to third level.

  Yesterday, the issue of why we are debating further education and higher education and why we do not have an integrated tertiary education system was raised. That is what I want. I accept there is an onus all of us, me included, to, in the Deputy's words, "flesh out" the plans and policies that will help achieve that. It is okay to debate that and to have different views as to how best to do it and sequence it. I am united with the Deputies on the purpose of radically overhauling the system.

  I also take a lot of interest in what has been said about the points race. It is wrong we have created a culture where there is an obsession now with the points race. There is huge pressure. I have just come from a virtual meeting with a group of sixth year students from three schools in west Cork. The idea of the points race and students' anxiety around getting points is one I accept. In terms of what I have done this week, I have tried to begin to change that by talking about having an integrated system, a broader CAO system where people see all of their options. It was mentioned we would need approximately 25,000 additional places to meet the demand, but that is if every student chose to go the higher education route. If we got our act together on apprenticeships as a real alternative, a pathway and an equally valuable way of getting to where one wants to get to in life, and in regard to further education, and we got each of those systems talking to each other, I do not believe we would need 25,000 additional places in higher education. We are having a conversation with students about the name of the university they want to go to before having the conversation with them about what they want to do in life and then offering them the four or five different routes of getting them there. I have seen this in my own constituency. We need to make it easier for people to move from further education to higher education.

  We need to embed apprenticeships not just in the private sector but the public sector. The public sector needs to step up too. There are only 300 plus apprenticeships in the public service. Later this month, along with my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Collins, I will be publishing a detailed action plan to set specific targets for all Departments, county councils and State agencies in that regard. This week, we launched the first statement of strategy for my Department. We will publish it on Monday. It is an ambitious plan of reform, which is about building collaborative connections. It will tackle inequality and barriers which prevent people entering third level. We will ensure everyone has the opportunity to fulfil his or her potential through access to education and training. The statement of strategy was not dreamed up by civil servants and a Minister; we engaged extensively with stakeholders, including students and wider civic society. We listened and, as a result, we do not just list the challenges. We also look at the opportunities to try to address some of the challenges in that statement of strategy. I hope we will have many chances to take elements of it and debate them in this House.

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